Thursday, December 28, 2006

Picture a week

At this time of year many people decide to embark on a Picture a Day (PAD) or Picture a Week (PAW) projects, to kick start productivity or to try to learn a new area of photography. Often those dry up or become chores. I did a picture a week project in 2005, that produced some good images and kept me shooting, but none of the images have anything in common, other than they were all shot by me. There are some good and not so good pictures in there, but I waffled around different genres, which makes it next to impossible to really improve in any one area.
The one thing that I did start doing that year was adding more and more people into my pictures. That's something that is continuing with the portrait projects I've recently started. A PAD or PAW can be great, but with some more focus and keying it in to a particular theme would really help pull it together into something more than just a collection of good shots from a year of shooting. 52 shots on one well defined and narrow theme is a lot. It'll be a challenge to come up with fresh ideas by shot 20 or 30 or 40, but I think the value in hitting those walls is in the new ideas that'll come out of it - not just repeating ideas and images that you've seen elsewhere. The one experience I have had in this was shooting for two years in the Lady Bird Johnson wildflower center. I went there almost every week for two years. I found that after the first year I'd worked out most of the clichéd ideas in my system and actually produced a few original ideas, for me. But it took me many, many visits, shooting hundreds of images before I started seeing shots that weren't just copies of ideas that I'd seen before in other photographs. I found that I had to do those cloned images to get them out of my head, before I could start seeing something new or original for me. If I'd just shot there for a week or two, I'd have never got beyond those superficial copies.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Ways forward

I’d sent my meandering thoughts on my photography and where I’m going to a few people that I’ve corresponded with over the last year. Paul Butzi was kind enough to take the time to respond and let me share his thoughts with the world. I think Paul sums up a lot of the things I've been struggling with pretty succinctly, so I'm just going to put his response here, in the hope that it can help others.

It seems to me that what you're asking, really, is "now that I've built a skill base, and I have a process in place for working on craft, where do I go from here?"

In my mind, things always tend to play out along the same lines photographers seem to build skills up to a certain point, and then either stall (and continue making what I call onesies - good or great photos that are unrelated thematically), or else they seem to gravitate to working in a more extended project format. It seems like the ability to work in a focused way on projects is the skill that seems to vault photographers up over the stall point that I think you're hitting.

In the book "On being a photographer', by Bill Jay & David Hurn, they talk about working on projects being about developing a plan and working to the plan, having a shot list, etc. I'm sure that's a help to commercially oriented photographers, but for the rest of us, it's of little use. When I work on a project, it seems to be quite a bit less cohesive and planned, and the project often takes unexpected turns in ways I hadn't imagined when I started out. I know other photographers who have little rituals that they use, patterns they use to get engaged with the project in the large. It seems to be different for everyone, and so it seems like each of us has to work it out for him/herself.

The essential ingredient seems to be that the project has to be something about which you care. If you don't care a lot, it will just peter out and die.

So I'd suggest that you pick a subject that you care about, and photograph like crazy. Look at the images you get, and make prints, and put them up where you'll see them all the time. Spend some time thinking about them, about what they say and what ideas you get from the ones you've done, and what you'd like to do next. If you have other photographers nearby, get together with them and show them the prints and listen carefully to what they say - not so much about the individual images so much as the whole body of photos. Often the telling comments are the ones that they just let slip in a casual way - those comments are often about the overall direction they see things taking.

There's a weird thing - the best projects seem to evolve a lot and become addictive, and seem to start to embody things beyond just what's being photographed.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Picking a project

If projects are the answer to being more creative, how do you come up with the idea ? I've been occasionally hung up on the thought that the project has to be grandiose and special - something that is going to change the world like Dorothea Lange's FSA series or Ansel Adam's images that launched the National Parks program in the US. I know my projects aren't that important or interesting, so sometimes that stops me even wanting to start. But I don't think I should be comparing myself against those images that have been filtered down through history, so that only the great and good remains. Anyway, I doubt those were the first assignments those fine photographers had, either!
It strikes me that, as is common in many endeavors, that productivity is one of the main keys to being creative. Just get stuck in there and take the pictures. The theme, other than being something that really interests you, isn't so important, as long as it makes you take the pictures. Worrying that pictures I haven't yet taken, aren't good enough, is just another form of procrastination. If I don't take them, I can be certain they won't be good enough, that's for sure.
I've tried to pick a few project themes in the past and I have a couple that I've recently started. One thing I've noticed is that the more open ended and loosely defined the project is, the more trouble I have in making progress with it. That's for a couple of reasons. Firstly, without a clearly defined subject, it is sometimes even hard to know what is part of a project and what isn't. A loosely defined project like pattern or portraits is generic to the point of being meaningless. I've found more tightly defined scopes of subject or theme really helps me focus in. Another key is that the subject should be accessible. So choosing to shoot Tibetan monks might be an appealing idea, but not very accessible to let me shoot over and again. Texan cowboys might be a better idea (unless I lived in Tibet)
I've also found that a technical hook can pull the images together, either by using one camera format, or one lens, or keeping the post processing to a consistent style or colour palette. I have one series that is being shot all on a lensbaby. Another has the same post processing, lens and shooting style. The pictures hang together thematically and visually as a result. I've thought at times that this is a gimmick, but the more I look at other projects by other photographers, I can see this same concept used to link the images. When it doesn't happen, it can be jarring and the project looses cohesion.
The other key for me is to define an end point. While many people devote their lives to shooting a particular theme, returning time and again to the same subject, I think for now I need to know when I'm done. Perhaps more importantly, this lets me gauge where I am along the way and allow me to demonstrate progress to myself. It will also keep me on track - I can produce a shot list and just tick them off as they get done. I think that'll help make me move on. Shorter duration projects are also a part of this. For now, grand 5 year plans will just lead me nowhere. I'll be better off picking a project I can shoot in a weekend, or a month or 6 months and actually finishing it, rather than starting yet another long term, long range theme. Along with this, I've found it helpful to define an end product, so that I know what I'm shooting for. This might be a set of prints, or a pdf, or a book or a website - what the end product is doesn't really matter, but if I know where I'm going, then it can help guide the type of pictures I'm going to take.

The power of projects

I've spent a few weeks now struggling with just what I'm doing with my photography. I've built up a reasonable level of skill with a camera and I think I can produce an interesting or at least competent picture in most cases. There's a whole world of things still to learn but I've got to a point where I can get something decent.
So then the next thing I'm looking for is what to do with this ? I've entered picture of the week contests that throw a new theme at you. These stretch me and let me explore new subject areas. While that's fun and can produce good one-off images, I always feel the results are a bit superficial and clichéd. The constant changing of focus never lets me really get in to a subject or explore it in a lot of detail. That's been fun for several years and has left me with a lot of good images, but nothing much cohesive or that holds a viewer's interest. They don't have much to say or hold them together.
I sent my three answers to a few photographers who I admire and the response so far has been pretty consistent. Hopefully, with their permission, I'll post some of those replies, but the constant theme was the idea of projects as the way forward. Pick a theme that interests you, any theme, and really start exploring it. Shoot a lot on the same subject, look at the results, go and shoot it again. Follow your passions - find the things that interest you and go shoot them.
I've tried picking themes and shooting to them before, but always suffered from the idea that the results wouldn't be good enough or significant enough. But I think I just need to get over that and go shoot some projects. But I also need to finish them. Set an end point, produce something that says that this project is done so I can start the next one. Otherwise, I'll keep starting and never finishing or learning from them. That end point can change for each set, but something concrete, a set of prints, a book, a web site. Just something that wraps it up. Not all projects have to have an end point, but I think for me I just need to start finishing things.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Three little answers

Answers to the three little questions, posed earlier this week. What do you want to do with photography ?

I always struggle with questions like this - perhaps more fundamentally I can start by saying why I do photography at all. I like that it makes me see things that many people overlook. It slows me down, makes time pass at a different speed and engages me with the place I'm in, not what I'm doing next week or what I've done in the past. It gives me the permission to stop, look around and relax. I get a huge thrill when the images appear, as good as or even better than I saw or thought I saw at the time of capture. I get a kick out of the interplay of light and colour or really capturing something that shows the essence of the person I'm photographing or the place I'm in. I want to shoot travel pictures that make you want to go there, or feel like you already have. I want to shoot portraits that make you already know this person you've never met. So I want to communicate with the viewer, how I feel things.
I feel though that I jump around between genres of photography, doing a bit of landscape photography, a bit of travel, cover a variety of sports, some natural light portraits, learn how to use lights, clichéd macros of flowers, some wedding images. Along the way I might produce the occasional stand out image, but no real cohesive set of images or anything that might be considered to have a style or recognisable part of me in them. I'm youngish at 34 and younger still as a photographer, having only picked up a camera in 2001, but I feel at the moment that I'm not focused enough to do anything significant. Maybe that is fine, but I'm starting to feel that I'd like to be able to point to a set or sets of images and see some sort of whole, rather than a series of disconnected greatest hits. My wife says I'm great at starting things but often get bored and move onto something else before finishing. Maybe that's all I need to do. Finish some things. Significant is a very lofty goal, maybe just finished is better.
What are your goals ?
This seems to be the big gaping hole in my answers right now. Not sure. I suppose when I work that out, I'll have more of a direction to go in. What I'm missing is how to get from where I am to even working out a set of goals, never mind working out how to achieve them. I think I'd like to do some cohesive images as part of a project or series, but I'm struggling to ever find a series or concept that I'd like to shoot. I'm technically inclined and I think reasonably accomplished in the craft side of photography but struggling to find my way towards some sort of artistic ideas that are my own, rather than repetition of images I see in other people's work. That mirrors my education and upbringing, that was almost entirely technically focused too. I'm concerned that I'll find I have nothing to say. But I still think I'd like to find out.
Why do you enter contests ?
As a way to share my images. Also, partly for validation but mainly for the increased audience that winning can bring. I've won a few photographic contests and the feedback I get from the viewers is very helpful. I doubt I'd have gotten so many people to look at my images, without winning. So I enter contests for the thrill I get from winning and the recognition it provides. Also, in a less secure way, it provides approval from my peers on what I'm doing - the validation that I can take a good photo. I'm not entirely sure why I care for that validation, but it always seems to be there. Friends & family are always so gushing with praise, but I tend to not value that opinion as highly as I do that of more accomplished photographers - who should at least have a wider and more refined view of what good actually means.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Right under your nose

Some times the best photographic opportunities are right under your nose. Case in point, I was out with a group of photographers and we were all feeling a bit underwhelmed by the street corner in Austin we were standing on. Then I noticed the black and white patterned stone pavement we were standing on. This was the first time we'd all got together to shoot, so it was time for a group shot. Getting to a different angle is a great way to shoot groups and this black and white background was the perfect backdrop.
I quickly nipped into the parking garage above us and got to a good vantage point. Luckily I managed to avoid the security and only did a little bit of trespassing. A wee bit of directing and shuffling around got the group together and that's the shot above. Suddenly it went from what would have been a line of heads shot at the same level, to something a bit more dynamic with a much simplified background - just by noticing what was right under our noses. Because everyone is looking up, there is more light in their faces and all the attention is right there too. We were shaded by the building across the street which helped keep the lighting simple.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Three little questions

1. What do you want to do with photography? 2. What are your goals? 3. Why do you enter contests ? I was asked these three questions yesterday. I'm mostly stumped for a good answer or one that I'm happy with. I'll try to answer them over the next week.


Sunday, December 17, 2006


This weekend I met up with a group of local photographers to shoot in the downtown Austin area. Michelle had asked me to shoot some portraits of her and so I was on the look-out for a good background. We all met up in the Hickory Street Bar & Grill on Congress Avenue. I'd parked up the hill and walked down to the bar, passed the south facing wall. They'd just painted the wall on the side of the place in a bright orange/yellow. I met Michelle a few minutes later, saw her red hair, and straight away I had the perfect co-ordinated colour background for her portrait. That was easy!
I've often shot with more complimentary colours but I actually like the similar wall tones with her hair - I think it makes for a bright but still not too zany colour palette. We'd all met around noon and the wall was in full sunlight, as it faces the South. Luckily enough we were back at that bar a few hours later after shooting various back alleyways and parking garages. The sun was behind a building and the wall was in bright, open shade. Perfect. We took about 5 minutes to shoot the portrait, setup, walk through a few poses and done. The other shot was taken in the capitol grounds, shooting with all the lights and twilight sky as a background. As I got lower to the ground I started noticing the traffic lights reflecting off the pavement and so I just got lower to play with that and combined in the green traffic light as a hair accent. The camera is turned backwards to give me something to focus on - another good tip for night shooting - focus on the bright lights at the distance you want to shoot at - give your camera a chance to lock on. All in all, it was a fun day to go out and shoot with a bunch of photographers who are willing to put up with the more silly suggestions. Most non-photographers would be bored, rolling their eyes and generally wanting to just move on to the next thing, rather than taking just one more shot.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Cornered light

I'm sure I'll work out how to smile for the camera eventually. But for now, here I am looking dour as usual. Comes of taking pictures by yourself in a silent room! Spent an hour stuck in a corner, trying to work out how to light with just one strobe. The flash is on the camera right, bounced into a silvered umbrella at about 45 degrees to me. The camera left wall is being used for fill and the wall behind me is providing the backdrop.
Camera was set on f5.6 at 1/250s (the max sync speed for the strobe) . Flash is being triggered by a wireless remote (about $20 on ebay) Playing around with the distance between me, the strobe, the side wall and the background changes the relative light levels. Move the camera, flash and me forward, the background gets darker. Move it all towards the wall, the background gets brighter. Move everything away from the side wall, the lighting ratio on the face goes up. Move it all closer to the wall, the lighting ratio evens out. Change the distance of me to the strobe changes the intensity of the main light on my face. One light, so many variables to play with - and that's without changing the angle of the light to me, messing with the camera aperture or starting to mix in ambient light with a slower shutter speed.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Lighting on the cheap

I've been working on portraits with available light for about a year now. I've been trying to learn to see the quality of the light, to be able to recognise where the good light is, even in the bad locations. But all of this has been with the light as it is found, not taking control and setting up lighting. I'm slowly starting to build up a set of strobes so that I can expand my ability to create interesting lighting. This watch shot, while not a portrait, is helping me learn how to light better. I've built a simple macro studio, with all the usual features you'd find in a larger studio environment. But this cost me a few dollars. I can play with the lighting and hopefully expand my repertoire for portraits as well as product photography, while working on a small, quickly adjustable scale. The light on the watch is from two small strobes, on the left and right. They are fired through relatively large diffusion panels I constructed from tracing paper and some poster board. I also added in some white poster board above the set to provide some bounced fill light. The background is a sheet of neon orange posterboard to give some colour contrast with the blue & yellow watch. Before I added the various pieces of lighting modification, this is how it looked. Hard specular reflections from the overhead lighting and no light in the recessed LCD face, gives a flat, ugly appearance. The reflections in the glass also don't add to the overall appearance and the hard shadow under the watch isn't very appealing. The coloured background might put it a little beyond most of the ebay shots out there, but this isn't exactly good lighting or a good product shot. But with just a bit of effort and experimentation I got to the shot above, with bright, diffuse highlights and controlled reflections. As I continue to play with this small macro setup I'm learning more about how I can adjust and modify light and new ways to control and light objects. I hope this is going to translate into portraits I'll take in the future and give me an overall better idea on how to get the shot I want, no matter what the light happens to be like on that day.