We’ve all heard the old saying: “It’s not the camera that makes the picture, it’s the photographer.” Why in music isn’t there a similar refrain? “It’s not the piano that makes the music, it’s the musician.” Or in art? “It’s not the brush or the paint, but the painter.” We rarely care about what brand of brush an artist uses; we care about the art produced. So why is it that, invariably, the first question asked of photographers is, “what kind of camera do you use?”
We think the problem with photography is that photographers use a tool that records images directly from reality. There is no implied ‘interpretation’ in using a camera. It’s seen as a device which objectively records the ‘real’ world. As such, we think that the better the recording device (the camera), the more accurate the reality, and therefore the better the photograph. And so it goes. As photographers we become obsessed with getting better and better gear. Our camera, lenses and accessories become the ends to the means and the means to an end. We become slaves and lovers of the technical aspects of the endeavour. Art is forgotten if even acknowledged at all.
In photography we are less likely to think like an artist. An artist uses his or her tools as a means of inner expression. Art is about telling the world who you are and what you think. Art is not reality; it’s an interpretation of your personal reality. Photographers mistakenly believe that the more they know about gear, tools and technique, the more accurate their representation of reality. Of course, nothing is further from the truth. Obsession with gear and goodies only gets in the way of communicating any message whether that message is journalistic or artistic. In photography we spend precious little time developing vision and voice. Mostly we just want to play with goodies.
For photographers who want to advance beyond gear obsession into the realm of artistic expression, we recommend several approaches:
- Take a bare minimum of gear with you on photo outings. We have written about this before but remind you about taking only a camera and one prime lens like a 50mm lens to help you hone your ability to see and express yourself with a single tool.
- Think of your photography not as a hunt for single trophy shots but instead in terms of a project. Pick a topic (e.g. garbage, trees, puddles) or a conceptual theme (isolation, power, contrast) and develop a body of work that speaks to the topic or theme. Project-based photography will help you concentrate more on the message than the medium. Gear quickly becomes secondary and diminished in importance compared to artistic expression.
- Take a course in photography that is about leaning to see and expression. Avoid courses that discuss technique or gear. You want to exercise your creative expression and not your wallet. Buying more gear, software or camera goodies will not help you. Invest in discovering your creative eye. One option is our Resolve: Discover Your Creative Self eCourse which is targeted so that you discover what makes your creative clock tick.
- Instead of reading on-line reviews of cameras and lenses, book off a day a month to go to art galleries and check out paintings, sculptures and visual installations. Take a notepad and jot down why the art appeals to you or not. Relax and really look at the pieces. What is the art telling you about the artist?
- Don’t try too hard; let your subjects speak to you. Don’t force a technique or a conscious attempt at style. Just respond and soon your photos will be created from within and not as a result of blindly jabbing at the shutter of your high-priced optical recording device.
- Get off the camera control crutch. Go back to fully auto or program mode in your camera and just shoot intuitively. Don’t think, just respond.
Of course there is a lot more you can do, but hopefully these little exercises will get you off the obsession with gear and on to the discovery of your self!
Highway 762 is different things to different people; just another road on their way to somewhere else, a destination for cyclists and motorcyclists, a place to drive slowly while viewing the scenery, the route for an annual cattle drive; and probably more besides. I intend to peel back my familiarity with the subject in an attempt to reveal what I see as the essence of this short, 22 km highway.
Meet Chris Bone. Chris is someone who travels Highway 762 a lot – whenever he wants to get anywhere from his home, in fact. While there may be more iconic stretches of pavement in the world, 762 has its own particular charm. But if you are setting a mentored project for yourself, and you want to push yourself to see something… deeper than scenery, more unexpected than cliché, is a road a good subject matter to choose?
It’s certainly not an easy choice! That’s Chris’ project statement above, and his portfolio of ten images below. In some ways, Chris was easy to mentor: he needed little guidance on goal-setting, articulating his idea or curating a final collection. We think he has come up with a very thoughtful story about Highway 762 as portrayed in his photo essay below. We suspect Chris will continue to travel everyday roads and come away with something unique to say about the experience.
For previous students’ mentored projects, click here.
Here at oopoomoo HQ we are getting set for a busy season of teaching, talking and taking (photos of course).
First up, we are thrilled to be part of a photo print exhibition on September 8 at Resolve Photo in Calgary. The print show is called RAÐLJÓST and the show features the work of fifteen local photographers who’ve traveled to — and fallen in love with — Iceland. Inspired by the Icelandic word “raðljóst” (which translates to “enough light to navigate”) the photographs seek to show Iceland interpreted creatively by each artist. Sam and I got a sneak peak at some of the prints going into the show and we are thrilled to report that you’ll discover an Iceland unlike anything you’ve seen before. And seeing these finely crafted prints in person reminds us that a key aspect of photography is not only posting photos to the web but also the tangible pleasure of viewing them as works of art in the form of prints. Some may even argue that the pinnacle in photography is a finely created print! Rather than show off the works here on the website we encourage you to come in person and enjoy the surprising views and luscious nature of fine art photographic prints of Iceland. For more information please check out this link.
Second, speaking of creative vision and personal expression, we want to remind you that oopoomoo will be in Abbotsford BC on October 22 to present our new show, “The Visionary Photographer”. In this show we’ll cover topics designed to take you into the realm of photographic artistry:
- The Confident Artist and The Art of Visual Perception
- Creative Lens Choice and Camera Controls for Visionary Photographers
- Advanced Compositional Patterns for the Visionary Photographer
- Personal Style and Creative Vision: The Metamorphosis of an Artist
Early bird pricing on this show ends August 31, so be sure to register soon if you plan to go. Plus we’d love to reconnect and meet BC friends old and new.
And finally, you may have noticed the fine work coming from students completing our 7/365 – The Mentored Photo Project eCourse. We are thrilled with the inspiring work of our students and have shared their July results. Watch for more awesome projects from our August students coming soon to the blog! If you have a photo project in you bursting to be seen, we have four private mentorships available this September.
Have you ever noticed that creative people are constantly recording their inspirations and ideas? Painters have sketch books they take with them to tinker with visual ideas. Writers sit in coffee shops, with a notebook or moleskin handy, ready to record snippets of conversations or observations for a character. Musicians used to carry small recorders to sample musical ideas. These days the smart phone is the handy recorder of choice for musicians. And with cameras built into smart phones, this back-pocket visual recorder has become the new sketch pad for photographers. And we have seen an explosion of creativity emerge simply because photographers now always have a camera with them in the form of their smart phone. The problem with smart phones is that they can be as much of a distraction as a creative tool. Instead of concentrating on making visual sketches, the photographer is also checking email, watching his Instagram feed and following the latest episode of his favourite Youtube channel. Meanwhile visual gifts flow by unnoticed.
When I am out and about doing errands and daily tasks I constantly see cool little visual vignettes that I wished I had recorded. We don’t own a smart phone and if we are not ‘on a photo shoot’ we leave the cameras at home so these little scenes are just ephemerally enjoyed in the moment – which is fine but sometimes I wish I could revisit those moments.
For my summer project I resolve to take a camera with me everywhere I go so I can capture the visual treats that present themselves constantly. These little ‘photo doodles’ I plan to put in a scrapbook along with my thoughts and impressions of each moment. Often I find that this type of visual journal is a springboard to launch larger projects. I’ll share the results of this Photo Doodle project on the blog and on the project page. Below are some recent doodles from the last few days. By the way, if you’re interested in trying out your own photo project but need help along the way our new eCourse 7/365 – The Mentored Photo Project might just be the ticket to kick start your creativity (we even have special pricing for those who commit before June 30th). Happy doodles!
What is the value of one week of your life?
What is the value of that week if you were doing something creative that you loved?
We believe firmly in the value of self-directed projects for artistic growth. Certainly we have been busy pursuing our own this year! But as we spent more time nurturing our photographic inclinations, we kept thinking how helpful a small mentored project might be for other photographers who wanted to get a creative idea out there in the world or even looking toward exhibiting their work. As much as we love doing our photographic thing, we kept wanting to share our happiness with you!
So our question is, do you have a photo project in you that’s itching to get out?
It may not be a big project (in fact, it probably shouldn’t be). It might even be a little strange or funny or weird. But you know that feeling you get when you’re out and about, and you see something and you think, “I wonder…” What if you had the time to pursue that little idea or spark of interest? Better still, what if you had two professionals invested in seeing your idea come to light, providing goal-setting materials, helping with planning and coaching you along the way?
We get those weird inspirations too. Now, we know better than to judge them. We call them our little orphan babies – orphan because there really is no home for them in what we do as professional photographers. They aren’t going to sell a workshop or print or calendar. No photo magazine wants them. They might even be such ugly little things that people turn away from their Facebook page! But they won’t let us go, these half-formed, raw and squirming intuitions. We have to bring them to the light and find a home for them.
Where should these little orphan ideas go? Well, what better place to try original ideas than our website, oopoomoo? Over the last year, we’ve moved our business toward a direction we find exciting; oopoomoo is more than ever a platform for sharing inspiring, talented and fresh photography, and we hope to have more stories behind living a creative life on the blog in future. We want to help you bring your orphan ideas to the world through a one-week, mentored photo project. Who knows? Maybe they’ll even find a home on the oopoomoo website through a published portfolio review!
If you have a photo project in you, then consider our new eCourse, 7/365: The Mentored Photo Project. It will take only one week of your time, but we bet you reap the rewards of seeing your project through the rest of your life. The satisfaction of bringing your unique way of seeing to the world is what every artist strives to achieve.
Resolve students! This new eCourse is a logical extension of 2016’s Resolve: Discovering Your Creative Self. You have the foundation for this next level of artistic development. To acknowledge your accomplishment, we have a special Early Bird discount for the month of July and August for all Resolve 2016 students – but space is limited! Use the appropriate monthly discount code provided to you in the June 17, 2016 Resolve Newsletter at checkout.
In our last blog post, Samantha talked about recent ‘mini-mentorship’ projects that we gave each other. Sam’s project was about personalized tree portraits, mine was about discovering artful design in nature and capturing that design in-camera. For me, the mentorship was incredibly valuable because it helped me recognize and articulate where I was and where I wanted to go as an artist. Once that was clear, the world opened up to infinite possible further project ideas. One of the main reasons that many photographers get in a visual rut and are not inspired is because they simply do not know who they are creatively. Knowing what your inner voice wants to say frees you from external constraints that hold you back.
As a mentor I learned to see the biases and expectations and self-doubt on the part of the mentee. Making assignments that addressed these issues forced the mentee to face the roadblocks to her creativity. Through teaching another you learn just as much about yourself and your own creative roadblocks. For both of us we emerged from the small mentored project with stronger artistic voices and renewed creative drive. Plus, we liked the results of our fun little projects! And now we just want to do more, both as mentors and as mentored artists.
It seems photographers fall into two camps; those who shoot Raw and those who shoot JPEGS. Few photographers shoot both. Raw shooters want to capture the most data possible from their cameras so they have the most information available to tweak in post-production. In the film days the negative was the analog data base used to make expressive prints in the darkroom; in the digital era the Raw file is the equivalent to the film negative. Raw shooters generally want to take control and expressive processing is as important (and sometimes more important) than image capture.
Photographing with JPEGS is like photographing with slide film. With slide film, the images did not go into the darkroom, the slide (the positive) was the finished product to be projected or published. Slides shooters were photographers first; they were not darkroom artists. Digital photographers who shoot JPEG need to get it right in the field because the image is processed and finished in camera. Any further processing in the computer will degrade the image information plus defeats the purpose of finishing the image in camera. JPEG shooters either don’t want or need (or are allowed) to do post-processing or are under tight deadlines and don’t have the luxury of post-production.
Why not have the best of both worlds? Until recently the main reason that photographers did not shoot both is that Raw and JPEG required different approaches in image capture that often were incompatible. Raw shooters want the most data possible and to get that data requires ‘exposing to the right‘ to capture more pixel information. Essentially this means ‘over-exposing’ the image without clipping important detail to have more pixel information to massage in post-production. Superficially these images look washed out and pale on the LCD and Raw shooters use their histograms to judge appropriate exposure and not the look of the image on the camera display. The final image density is set later in the computer. JPEG shooters, on the other hand, want images that are finished in-camera looking appropriately exposed for the photographer’s taste. As well, JPEG shooters must decide on the appropriate picture style (vivid, standard, monochrome etc), colour space and white balance to set on their cameras before pressing the shutter. With Raw, you just capture the data; camera settings like white balance, colour space and picture style have no effect on the information captured. And so shooting Raw or shooting JPEG often meant two different shooting mindsets. Photographing with both at the same time didn’t really work well for most people.
In the last five years or so, improvements in camera sensors have made the need to ‘expose to the right’ to get high quality data more a matter of theory and less a matter of necessity. If you’re really anal and a pixel peeper you may see small quality differences in files processed from ‘expose right’ versus ‘exposed to taste’ Raw files. But really, the differences are now so small that for practical applications exposing right just doesn’t matter that much anymore. And so now we could shoot Raw plus JPEG and have the best of both worlds… but why bother?
The biggest problem with shooting Raw is the fact that it’s easy to make images in the field but the real work and time involved is in post-processing. Almost all the photographers I know that shoot Raw have years of back-logged images that are not processed and this backlog constantly haunts and taunts them. You can’t print, email or publish unprocessed Raw images; they need to be run through a Raw image convertor, even if minimally processed, before they can be used. Piles of unprocessed files languishing on hard drives are more than just an inconvenience they are a liability. Years later, looking at backlog of Raw images, you may have forgotten your initial creative vision for a particular image. Maybe you initially envisioned the finished image as a high contrast B+W but now looking at the pale milky looking Raw file you wonder why you even took the photo in the first place.
To solve both problems (the image backlog and remembering your creative vision) why not shoot Raw plus JPEG? Photograph with appropriate white balance, colour settings, exposure, aspect ratio and picture style to honour and represent want you want the final image to look like. These settings will be recorded on the JPEG as a final processed image that you can catalog and share right away. The RAW version of the file will serve as the negative for that JPEG and is always available should you want to tweak the image later or try a different treatment. Using this system gets your images into your catalog faster, allows you to see a rough representation of what you had in mind for your finished image and still provides you with a Raw image to manipulate if you need it. Also shooting JPEG will make you a better photographer because you’ll have to think in advance about what you want the final image to look like. You actually have to visualize and that’s what good artists do! They don’t just take a Raw file and wiggle sliders until something ‘cool’ emerges. If you worried about hard drive space, then just shoot small JPEGS with your Raws since the former is really only used as a visual reference of your digital negatives.
The Raw plus JPEG workflow is not for everyone. If you shoot lots of HDR imagery, focus-stacking, or multi-image panoramas then you might as well stick with Raw because you’ll need to process your images anyway. If you have a camera older than 5-years old you might also want to stick to Raw as well for quality reasons. But if you mostly shoot single in-camera images and have a newer camera with a great sensor, then maybe the Raw plus JPEG workflow might work for you. Try it and let us know what you think.
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.