On Photography and Art

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People enjoy photography I think because it is a challenge. If it was easy to produce an exceptional photograph every time you pressed the shutter, no one would be interested in it.

There are mysteries. There are problems to solve. There are unknowns. There is luck and there is error.

But what separates good photographers from poor ones is effort. Good photographers are the ones who are always working. They are the ones who are possessed. They are the ones who go to bed at night thinking about the next image, and thinking about how they need to change themselves to get to where they want to be.

And there is this zen in photography where you just see. You notice things that others don’t. You are often overwhelmed with imagery…with light…with shadows and contrast and colour and form. You are consumed with geometry and finding a poetic order to something without it being any where near perfect.

Yet even with all these things that are enough to drive you mad, a camera in the hand can set you free. It can release you from self awareness. It can unburden you from rule and restraint.

And the mind of an artist is a very strange thing. We think we’re starting to grasp something until we come to terms with knowing nothing. For every question, there is another question. And just like for every thing we think is true, the opposite is often also true.

The ultimate zen though is being free – free from too much thought…free from technology…free from constraint…free from worry about what others may think…and free from needing any acknowledgement that what you’re doing is valid. That’s when art happens.

Be free. And and enjoy the art of the image. That’s all that matters.

 

Happy Shooting,

 

Doug

What Shooting Film Has Taught Me

It must have been sometime around the year 1973 when my interest in photography really started. The reason I remember this is because my father brought home a few photography brochures from the office he was working in. On the cover of one of those brochures was the brand new Canon FTb SLR film camera. What a beauty. I can remember how much I would have liked to have been able to use a camera like that, but unfortunately, it was just not in our budget. Advance to the year 2016 and I am now the proud owner of a mint FTb with a 85mm f1.2 lens. It only took 42 years but I am finally shooting with that dream camera of my youth.

Film photography was how I started out as a photographer, and I still enjoy shooting with it today. I taught myself how to develop, scan, and print both black and white and colour negatives. I can honestly say that shooting with film has taught me more photography skills than any of my digital cameras will ever teach me.

I suppose though, that it’s the process of shooting with film that I enjoy the most. It’s getting away from that instant gratification thing that has made me have more of an appreciation for producing an image that is interesting and meaningful.

Today I’m a hybrid photographer. I own and shoot both digital and analog cameras. I cannot however, tell you how thankful I am that I started out with film and using film cameras. I guess I’m a dying breed as the new generation has grown up with digital. But it sure is nice to see so many younger people shooting with film SLR’s and really enjoying it.

So why then, do I think that I’ve learned a lot using film cameras? Here are some of my experiences:

1.) Shooting with film has taught me to think about what I’m doing with the camera. I’ve got 36 frames on a roll and I want to make them count.

2.) I have learned how to really evaluate exposure. Many of my film cameras either don’t have meters or have meters that don’t work. As a result I’ve taught myself how to carefully measure light using an external light meter or the sunny 16 rule.

3.) Film cameras have taught me the basics of understanding that photography is really the ability to see as well as having a good grasp of ASA (ISO), shutter speed, and aperture. Most film cameras have shutter speeds and apertures in full stops so they are easier to understand how different combinations work.

4.) I have learned that careful developing and film handling is critical to producing a good undamaged, clean negative.

5.) Shooting film has really taught me a great deal about how to see colour in the world. I’ve learned all about primary and complimentary colours, and how they manifest themselves with different film stocks. Thanks to film, I have a better understanding of what to look for when shooting colour.

6.) Film has taught me that sharpness and focus are often way overrated. A good photograph is not the sharpest photograph or the one that focused precisely.

7.) Film has given me an appreciation for the film aesthetic. I love the subtle differences in various film stocks, and I embrace grain like I couldn’t do with digital.

8.) Shooting film has made me patient. I’m no longer in a hurry to see my images. In fact, usually by the time I’ve developed the roll of film, I’ve completely forgotten that I even took those photos. That just makes it all the more sweeter.

9.) Film photography has led me to learn all about photography history. If you don’t know where you came from, you won’t know where you’re going.

10.) Large format photography has brought the joy back into shooting. I think the reason for this is because it requires a great deal of effort. And looking at an image on the ground glass that is upside down and flipped left to right, has forced me to pay attention to the edges of the frame and carefully consider my composition. The satisfaction I get from seeing a large format print beautifully composed, exposed, and handled is like no other.

So there you have it. There are many more reasons why shooting film has helped me as a photographer, but I think you get the point. If you are a new photographer and have never tried film, I encourage you to do so. Even if you buy a used SLR on Ebay and shoot a few rolls a year and have a lab develop them for you, you’re bound to enjoy the experience and learn a lot about photography.

Happy Shooting,

Doug

The Photograph and the Quest for Something More

Taking a photograph for the sake of taking a photograph rarely leads to producing something worthwhile. It can by luck, but more times than not, it’s just an image of nothing.

As you scroll through the barrage of photos that come to us by way of social media, you will notice a great many that seem like they were taken just for the sake of taking some kind of image to post. And although they may be visually appealing, I’ve come to realize something very important: really good images are rare even for seasoned photographers.

Photography history has taught us that compelling images are indeed something that may only come along a few times in a lifetime. And many of the great photographers have said you’re doing well if you get ten good images in a year.

So this brings us to then ask, “Just what constitutes a good image?”

There are many images that are well done. There are many images that may appeal to us one way or another. And after all, this is art. It’s subjective. What one person likes another dislikes. But a compelling image has to possess a quality that the others don’t: that is, it has to be significant.

Significance at least in my mind, means that the image must have something to say.

Ask yourself these questions:

Is the image poetic in some way? Does it represent a commonality of a shared experience?

Does the image contain irony or humour or something that makes us actually want to stop and consider what’s going on?

Does the image describe a place and a time? And if so, does it do so without error or false representation?

Does the image say something about human nature?

Is the image something more than technically proficient, or visually appealing?

Understanding that it is the very nature of still photography to leave you with questions when you look at a photograph, it would help then to try to take photographs that have something to say, and that can describe a time and place, but not quite explain everything that may be happening.

A photograph is only a very brief moment of time that is still, has been frozen, or has been extruded from our life lines. And this is why it is so hard to make a photograph that is not only visually appealing, but also has something to say that is worth saying.

Make your images significant.

Happy Shooting,

Doug

Embracing Ambiguity

Today I was listening to a radio show which chronicled some of the works of the great Russian writer and playwright Anton Chekhov. It was fascinating to say the least, to hear scholars, teachers, and interpreters speak of his life, how he fell in love, how he saw the world, and how he really experienced life.

And, I thought it’s always a good thing for photographers to explore other arts like literature, painting, cinema etc. You can only come away from these things a better person – perhaps more worldly, more creative, more passionate, and more grateful for the little things that complete our lives.

I’ve been photographing a different aesthetic lately as you might tell from my Instagram feed. Some would call it “new topographics”, others might prefer “contemporary landscape.” However I’ve been thinking about a certain lesson I learned in photography a long time ago, and how it applies to this style. That is, no one expects perfection in photographs. They simply want the photographer to describe to them the “significance” of the place in a way that is easily understandable. And, you do this in part by learning to embrace all the imperfections in life. Very often, the most beautiful images are the ones that pass along some kind of shared experience to the viewer. And even though in most circumstances you can never really believe anything you see in photographs these days, there is a genuineness in a good photograph that displays life’s flaws. There is I believe, always a way to find a composition based on a beauty and a truth. A good photograph should be poetic, metaphoric, and significant…but yet flawed.

Life is like that it seems, in that we can’t always predict what is going to happen to us. We can’t always control the events that shape our futures. And, in every thing I photograph I see that. The older I get, the more profound this fact becomes.

So my photography tip for this month is this: learn to embrace life’s ambiguities. Appreciate imperfection and loss of control. You will be a much better photographer and a seeker of truth.

Happy Shooting,

Doug

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Looking at a Photograph

A few weeks back I blogged about a some of the things you can do to make your photography better. If you haven’t seen it, please read https://dougkeech.wordpress.com/2016/12/27/ten-things-to-strive-for-in-your-photography/.

Further to that post, I’d like to add a few more observations to each consideration and some of the specific factors that can influence such.

1.) Does the photograph possess a beauty in and of itself?

Influential factors: composition/balance, subject matter, light, tonality/contrast, colour

2.) Does the image shock you in some way as to keep you wanting to look?

Influential factors: subject matter, compositional technique, timing

3.) Does the image have a universal appeal or value?

Influential factors: shared experience, subject matter, timelessness

4.) Is the photograph poetic or symbolic of something larger?

Influential factors: shared experience, subject matter, photographic technique, processing

5.) Is the image interesting to look at?

Influential factors: subject matter, compositional technique, frame, moment

6.) Is the photograph significant in some way?

Influential factors: subject matter, uniqueness, relevance to the time, descriptive ability

7.) Is it useful in that it documents a place and time or describes a human condition?

Influential factors: relevance to a certain event, descriptive ability, encompasses a story

8.) Does the image spark an emotion in you?

Influential factors: gesture, intimacy, shared experience/memory trigger

9.) Does the photograph have enough context for you to know what you’re looking at?

Influential factors: distance, frame

10.) Has the photographer confined the significant detail and rid the image of the unimportant clutter?

Influential factors: frame

Garry Winogrand was quoted once as saying that it’s the photographer’s problem to figure out a way to make the photograph more interesting to look at than the thing actually being photographed. And obviously there are many more criteria that go into making a photograph than the ones mentioned here. However, I have found it a good exercise to go through each of the above things to strive for in your photography and try to think of examples of images that illustrate the points as a good example and as a bad example.

Happy Shooting,

Doug

On Formats and Sensors

Why do photographers use different cameras? Why for example would they choose to photograph with a large format, cumbersome old camera versus a nice new modern 35mm DSLR? Why do some photographers prefer using a Pentax 645 or a Hasselblad 6 by 6 for their work? And why on earth would some photographers choose film over digital?

I want to say first of all, that even though photography is a visual art and the end product of what we do is something to study and look at, it is also an activity that is based on process. Therefore image quality aside, some photographers very much enjoy the process of shooting on large format compared to how easy it is to snap an image with say a cellphone or a 35mm point and shoot.

But in terms of image quality, let’s consider a few of the most important differences between formats.

1.) The larger the format or sensor size, the less depth of field and the better the separation between focus planes in the image. Typically when you go to a larger format you need a longer lens to get the same image coverage. And although you could shoot at a smaller aperture to compensate for the depth of field difference, the image is still rendered differently. Image planes are separated better and with a sharper transition than wider lenses can accommodate.

2.) The larger the format or sensor size, the greater the dynamic range and the more subtle the transitions between adjacent luminosities. This is perhaps the number one reason many landscape photographers tend to choose large format cameras. Not only are they typically shooting scenes with large dynamic ranges, but they also tend to print big. Some modern DSLR cameras handle dynamic range quite well while others do not. The capture curve on some cameras is very linear producing unnatural looking tonality. And there are some cameras that may have a smaller actual dynamic range, but they have a curve that renders the high-mids to high luminosities in a much more gradual and natural looking way.

3.) The larger the format or sensor size, the larger the image receptors and the more spread out over a greater area they are. This results in better signal to noise ratios which are perceived as better edge definition and clarity. And, when viewing large prints up close, certainly more pixels per inch is a huge part of what gives us the sensation of being immersed into a scene rather than just say looking at some flat rectangle from a distance.

An interesting aspect to this story that most people do not realize, particularly when it comes to tonal transition and resolution, is that most web images simply cannot show you these differences. In fact it’s not until you start to display images that are at least 3000 pixels in size that you will begin to appreciate this. Not many people are in the habit of outputting 100 percent crops of their web images or displaying them in that size. 4k monitors are becoming much more prevalent, but even still, the typical size of a web image and that kind of downsizing of a high resolution sensor cannot possibly yield any advantage to resolution or edge acuity, the very reasons why we think we should choose a large format camera.

So this brings us back to the question of why we need to shoot with a larger format camera or sensor size. I’d like to think that most who shoot these kinds of cameras are in the habit of outputting their images to large prints. But there are also those who simply choose to shoot different formats because it is the “process” that they enjoy regardless of the image quality. It is indeed a whole different thing to shoot a large format camera compared to a 35mm.

And lastly, why do some photographers choose film over digital? It’s been my experience that the response curve of film is very much like what we see with very gradual tonal transitions in the high end, whereas most digital cameras, particularly those with smaller sensor sizes have rather unnatural and abrupt response transitions to clipping. Trying to capture large dynamic range landscapes with an iPhone is going to produce images that not only suffer from poor resolution, but may have unfavourable highlight clipping or poor colour rendering. Cell phone cameras have really improved of late, and may be a huge advantage as far as stealthiness and convenience, however, they are not the camera of choice if you’re looking for high output resolution or image plane separation.

This all brings us back to what I’ve mentioned in many of my previous blogs about things to consider when choosing a camera. You need to look at and consider your end goal. If you’re only interested in printing the occasional 4 by 6 or outputting your images to Instagram, then why are you using a medium format sensor or a DSLR with a massively high resolution?  I hope your answer is because you enjoy using the camera and not because it gets you more likes. (But we all know that those of us who still shoot film cameras are cooler right?)

Something to think about…

Happy Shooting,

Doug

Photographers: Who Do You Really Work For?

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in photography is to make sure you have a clear set of goals and you know exactly where you stand as far as your abilities go.

On a daily basis I think about the realization that it is the photographer not the camera who is the instrument. And that more than anything else, I want to continue to develop my vision. I want to produce photographs that are not only unique, but are somehow useful. They must carry some weight or possess some poetry. I have no desire to make photographs that are the same as someone else’s. I have no desire to make photographs that are useless and totally devoid of any kind of reason for existing.

I have learned that nobody including myself, cares about photographs that exist purely to demonstrate a level of skill. And nobody cares about photographs that are perfectly composed or executed.

If I can look back on my year and be proud of all the things I’ve learned and some of the images I’ve taken, then I’m ok with that. If I can be proud of having a vision that is my own, or if I’ve overcome obstacles that stood in my way, then I’ve achieved something.

Especially important is to realize that if you’re a somewhat average photographer, and by that I mean someone who perhaps lives in a small town, someone who works full time doing something other than photography, or runs a small business, or doesn’t have any corporate backing, or someone who doesn’t have people promoting them or working for them, someone who doesn’t get invitations to do presentations or guest blog posts etc. that you should know who you’re really working for.

Your real boss is you. I’ll repeat that. Your real boss is you. And the only person that really cares about your work is you. You need to measure your progress against all you’ve learned and done in the past year or two. If you’re happy that your photography and your vision is progressing, then you can and should consider yourself to be success!

Do not make the mistake of falling into the social media trap being someone who measures their worth based on Facebook or Instagram likes. They mean nothing. Many on social media who like your images do so only to get a like back for themselves. It is a reflection of the times we live in. It’s the way of the world.

I can upload what I consider to be the best image I’ve ever done to Facebook and be lucky if it gets 5 or 10 likes. In fact, most people simply don’t care about what you’re doing as much as they care about what’s going on in their own private worlds. It’s a fact of life. And that is completely normal. I recently self published a 132 page book of black and white images with important writings on some of the most valuable concepts I’ve learned being a photographer. Now, if I was a young photographer looking to learn something that would certainly make them better, it’s a no-brainer to get a copy of the book. It has the potential to take years off one’s uphill climb to seeing. Do you want to know the reality of the situation? Not a single copy has been sold (even at zero profit margin) to any friends, any local photographers, or any family members for that matter. Did I push the book? Other than a single blog post and about a half dozen posts to Facebook, not really. But the truth of the matter is that nobody is as interested in what you’re doing or trying to accomplish as you yourself are.

Understand that the reason you do what you do is is for you! It’s for your memories in twenty or thirty years from now. It’s for your kids. It simply doesn’t matter if you spent 2 years or 4 years putting together a project of your greatest efforts. Nobody cares unless you put an enormous amount of time and effort into promoting the product. And even then, it will likely be only about 2% of the masses that are even remotely interested in giving it a look. It’s a fact. And it’s certainly not a problem unless you expect something to be any different. That’s normal.

I strongly encourage any photographer to print their images and archive them into an album. Put your completed photo books in a library for your kids to enjoy someday. After you’re gone, your husband or wife may really enjoy looking back over all the memories and the special way you saw the world.

These should be your most important goals as a photographer.

Don’t ever fool yourself.

Do it for you. Do it for you.

Happy shooting as always. And this Christmas give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done. You damn well deserve it.

Doug