Monday, September 29, 2008

wait a moment

The little weekly group of photographers I shoot with decided to try to explore the 'decisive moment' over the weekend. The aim was to try to emulate the style of Henri Cartier-Bresson. One image that was discussed was Heyres. That's the town the picture of the cyclist, above, was taken. I looked at this and pondered if Bresson found this location then waited for a while to see what might come by. Was this purely a reaction shot to the cyclist, or had he considered the great framing opportunities of the staircase and road, then waited for the right moment for that scene? I'm sure talent and luck play a large part, but as ever I think that luck favours the prepared.

I did a bit of searching to see what I could find out about this picture and ended up listening to a Jeff Curto podcast on the image. Jeff has a similar view to mine, maybe there are other negatives, with a couple strolling by, or someone pushing a handcart that we've never seen. The editing of these decisive moments is important too.

Over the years I've felt that I've recognised great scenes, or stages, with the potential to have a moment that brings them to life, but maybe haven't invested the time or developed the patience to wait on the real drama to unfold. Along similar lines, I've started putting more people into those scenes that I've recognised, trying to manufacture the potential that I could see, with greater or less success. In either case, it is something alive or changing that animates the scene - a person, an animal, something that gives a sense of the passage of time. More than anything perhaps that's what makes the moment decisive - it has to have the potential to be just a moment, there and gone, rather than a static scene. Certainly the decisive moment is that zenith of the action when everything comes together, but for so long, my images didn't even have that potential.

Also while looking for more info on the image at the start of this post, I found this flickr discussion. Apparently context matters. Not sure if that is a damning indictment on the state of photography just now and the level of online discourse, or a telling insight into the rose-coloured glasses that we view the work of the greats of photography.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

days with my father

Days with my father by Philip Toledano

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


I try not to post a whole lot about the technical side of the camera world. I think there are plenty of sites that do it much better than I'm ever interested in doing and also there isn't enough out there about the less tangible aspects of this hobby/art/obsession.

Same goes for the photographic books out there, page upon page of technical information, very little on the thought processes and approaches being taken. Freeman Patterson is one of the best at talking about the 'inner game' of photography. Galen Rowell ventured into it on occasion too. It's a short list, compared to the technical authors, talking aperture, shutter, Photoshop buttons and widgets. John Paul Caponigro does well at breaking down the 'why' for editing, rather than the 'how' but again, most of the other authors focus on how to do things, not when or why you should or should not.

I think the main reason is it is easy to talk about the technical aspects. There are hard and fast answers to what an aperture is and how to open and close it. Doesn't require a lot of introspection to explain how to use the clone tool.

That said, I'm really excited about the Canon 5D mkII from what I've seen. I want to get a full frame camera. My 1dII is a 1.3x crop and I feel constrained on the wide end when shooting landscapes with a 17-40 F4L. When I first got this wide-angle lens, I was really frustrated with it. Even on a Canon D60 (a 1.6x crop sensor) I could never use all that visual space. I had a hard time composing anything that would be compelling. I loved using a 70-200 telephoto and a 100mm macro at the time, could crop and compose tightly and create interesting images. But the wide-angle end of the range really frustrated me. Everything would be too small, too disconnected.

That was, until I did a workshop with Craig Tanner, who taught me about his rhythm method of landscape composition. I learned to realise that I wouldn't just stumble upon a good wide angle composition - mainly because your eye just doesn't see that way. You can see telephoto compositions more readily, because you are just cropping out parts of what you can actually see, but not so with wide angle. You have to look through the lens to see what you'll see then. I learned the idea of constructing a scene, finding some key element in the landscape for the composition, then finding other parts to rhyme with it and build the composition, piece by piece. It might be the shape of a cloud and some bush, a crack in mud and the slope of a mountain, anything that can tie pieces of the scene subtly together, making your eye move around the composition. You can do this with a wide angle lens much more readily, because small changes for the camera cause dramatic shifts in the scene. Elements can be quite easily shifted in and out and across the frame, particularly in the foreground.

After a few days of practice, this approach started making my wide angle shots work. I began to find myself frustrated that I couldn't go wider, rather than struggling to make an effective 27mm frame cohesive. The 1.3x crop Canon 1D MkII helped a bit, but still I want more. 22mm is getting there but I want full frame. The other aspect I've found using a 1DII for landscapes is that it is a heavy, solid camera. The new 5DII is about a pound lighter so I'm hoping it'll be better for hiking. There have been trips I decided to forego the 1DII in favour of a small point and shoot, just to keep down the weight. A two day hike up to the rim in the Chisos mountains in Big Bend is one opportunity that stands out in my mind. We had to carry all our water up the mountain side and I didn't feel up to lugging a 1-series body and lens with me. On the rim we were treated to some of the most spectacular sunrises and sunsets I've ever seen. Maybe next time I'll have a more portable camera!

Also in the last couple of years I've moved more towards portrait photography and I think the 5DII is going to be fantastic for that. The frame rate is good enough but in particular the higher ISO modes are exciting, particularly for low light street portraiture. I've had a lot of fun shooting portraits at night in Austin, with a fast lens. I can get away with ISO 1600 on the 1DII for grainy black and whites and from the samples I've seen the 5DII looks to have great low light, with a usable ISO6400 and the option of heading to ISO256000 which is ridiculous. The smaller camera might be less intimidating to strangers when I approach too - not sure if that'll be good or bad.

Full frame, lower weight, great low light and a much bigger sensor than my current 1 series body. Almost everything I could want. I'm going to keep the big tank for sports shooting, 8.5fps is quite addictive after a while - I've even occasionally shot movies with that, in a jerky flick book way.

The final feature of the 5DII is the movie mode. 1080p resolution video up to 12 minutes long. I've dabbled with creating the semblance of movies with my cameras, trying to mix in audio, stills and video. So I'm excited to get to try this feature out. There is an amazing video shot with the 5DII on Canon's site, showing off some of the features of the camera. Mostly amazing because it was put together in a 3 days. The story maybe could with work but it looks lovely.

Monday, September 22, 2008


Continuing on the occasional red nose portrait theme. Chris had his lights set up for another portrait project so I borrowed his pattern. Thanks to everyone who let me shoot them looking silly.

Friday, September 19, 2008

a direction


I was pointed towards a couple of really amazing photographer's web sites today. I'm partly inspired and partly depressed in equal measure, but think they are all worth sharing. The common thread in Eric Ogden's images is beautiful, found light mixed with some additional strobe. Along with lovely locations and a great sense of story. Image, after depressingly great image, they unfolded infront of me. Looking for more, I found this interview with him from PDN that describes a bit about his process. Looking through his images pushed me to revisit Aaron Hobson's equally cinematic work. A common thread of narrative as well as lighting here I feel.

Another that blows me away is Mark Tucker. Again lovely light and clean, great portraiture. Inspired all over again. To finish off this linkfest, I went back and looked at Mark Robert Halper's site. The last two maybe don't have quite the cinematic feel of Eric Ogden's sumptuous images but all share a common thread of found light mixed in with artificial that really appeals to me. The idea of working in a studio doesn't interest me much at all, I've realised more and more. Setting up lights in a dark corner of a location has a similar lack of appeal - I want to find great light and enhance or play with it, rather than making it all from scratch. I need to stay on that thread for a while.

This shot above of Amanda is perhaps not in the same league, but shares some queues, using the light that was there in interesting ways. It has the advantage that I didn't have to get off the couch to take it and play around with the lighting options. Something to explore further over the months to come. I've spent a year or so getting comfortable with finding and recognising good available light - now I want to add and enhance, rather than overpower or replace. Working out what I like and maybe even more so, working out what I don't like helps move things forward.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

an end to estivation

we are...

We had our first almost cool days in Austin this week. A window open during the day, a cooler breeze. I seem to be waking up from the summer back to wanting to take pictures too. I can feel that old, familiar itch in the finger. My brain has started picking over project ideas, finding inspiration here and there and wanting to start putting some pictures together. I don't think I'm quite ready for another SoFoBoMo sprint, but I do feel the motivation coming back. Perhaps it is part of getting better and the promise of more mobility, or maybe just that it isn't so damn hot outside.

I've been fascinated by projects that get the subjects to share something of themselves to the viewer. Often this takes the form of a tablet, mini-white board or sign that gets attached to the portrait, or held in the hand. I don't really know why these capture my imagination so much - you are given a very tiny window into the subject, beyond just how they appear in the portrait. It might be true, it might be false, but that extra insight feeds the nosiness and curiosity about people that I have. At the same time, I wonder if it is more of a gimmick than an insight. Perhaps something more straight up, direct and honest is called for. John Setzler has used this approach to good effect, with his Tell The World SoFoBoMo project, and others. The I Am project for Art City Austin (some shots above) was another enjoyable project to view.

At the same time, I just watched this 5 minute documentary on Avedon's portraits. Nothing clever here, just great portraits, cleanly done. Then, at the end of the documentary, a link to another. An interview with Frank Warren. More food for thought. People sharing secrets, anonymously via the mail. But would these people share so apparently deeply, with their picture attached? A quick search found Frank's blog where he posts some of the more interesting secrets he receives. I now realise I've seen this before, but maybe needed to see it again, now. Even if this doesn't go anywhere, I'm at least thinking up ideas. I may even dust off the red nose this weekend and take some portraits.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008



I am slowly getting back to actually taking pictures again. There should be an increase in photo related content over the next few weeks, I promise. Mostly off and over the painkillers for now. Got all the initial bandages and dressings taken off and some of the sutures removed yesterday (a slightly gruesome close-up). Now I'm in a jaunty blue fiber-glass cast. I didn't realise I'd become half man/ half boat in this process but that seems to be the tack we are taking. Makes for a lighter weight than a traditional plaster cast but Amanda was disappointed she didn't get to sign it. I'm trussed up like this for another two weeks and then I get it smashed off and move into a removable velcro boot, which hopefully means I'll be a bit more mobile. Still not allowed to run though!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

for Amanda

who's looking after me so well and putting up with me at the same time...

ankle updates


My Ankle has been a bone of contention for almost exactly a year now, since Arun didn't force me to break it playing squash. Finally got something done about it yesterday. Surgery lasted a couple of hours, the bits of bone and scar tissue were pulled out through some wiz-bang wonders of modern gadgetry and arthroscopy. I'm told the ligament was cut off and then re-attached and I'm all splinted and bandaged together now, lying on the couch. I'm finding the vicodin is a lot of fun, but not very conducive to lucid thought. Or any much thought at all really. I keep forgetting things that I've just done, but am generally happy about the whole experience. I have the attention span of a small newt. Just about enough to keep up with Super Mario Galaxy and not much else. Getting up and down from the couch makes me dizzy and all in all it is an interesting experience that I can hopefully not repeat in a hurry. I have just about mastered the flowing, staggering, always half falling way of maneuvering with crutches.

I get the bandages and sutures removed next week, then I get moved into a solid cast for a couple of weeks. After that, a removable boot and lots of physiotherapy (I almost typoed psychotherapy there). Hopefully I can start swimming again in a month or so, get back on a bike by the end of the year and do some running into the cooler months of the start of next year. Longer term aspirations for 2009 and 2010 will probably have to wait until I find out that I can walk and/ or run again. Fingers crossed...

Monday, September 08, 2008

pixie dust

Amanda, tim & kate
Another one from On Writing. If you want to write well, you have to do two things. Read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around it. The photographic parallel is blatent - not just taking a lot of photos - and trying to finding the muse along the way. But also, looking at a lot of photos, not just your own, but looking at books of photography, finding what feeds your eye. Working at it is the only way forward, towards being productive and creative. Nobody is going to sprinkle pixie dust on your camera and have great pictures magically appear.

fear and writing

Listening to Stephen King's On Writing via audio book. Once again that recurring theme of fear and creativity rears its head. This time, he states his belief that fear is at the root of much weak writing. Over qualification of phrases with adverbs, because the writer isn't brave enough to believe that their dialog will explain intent, without further qualification. Passive voice used, because the writer is too scared to exclaim "this is me, this is what I believe". Most interestingly enough was just the common theme, art and writing, fear and creativity. Any medium you like, most of us struggle to believe we've got anything interesting to say. Yet we all have a unique point of view worth sharing.

back in Austin


Got back to Austin on Friday night, after a few weeks away. I'd hoped that I would do more photography while in North Carolina, but really the urge never quite grabbed me. Really that means I didn't get out enough with my camera and start shooting, until the urge grabbed me. It is very rare for inspiration to find me, until I actually have the camera in my hand and take a few frames. So in NC, my camera languished in the bag and I watched the Olympics. Took some pictures in the Outer Banks, but mostly recording the places I'd camped and things I saw - nothing too interesting. Then I shot a bit with a point and shoot when hiking in the Smokies. Started getting a bit of a twinge of an idea and did some motion panning on the trees. A small step but got me thinking photographically again at least for a few moments.

Then this weekend, the Austin Strobist group seems to be resurrecting like a phoenix from the hot ashes of an Austin summer. People are turning up, plans are being hatched and it is shaping up to be an interesting Autumn season. I went along just to see people, but took my camera. Then snapped a few while people were talking. Ideas started to flow, I began noticing the light where we were talking, and took a few portraits, playing with the stupendously purple walls and inflatable furniture and the directional window light. Having fun again and motiviated. All it takes is taking some pictures. Now why didn't I do that when I was away?

carol chris

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Smoky Mountains

Smoky Mountains

26.1 miles walked.
7000 ft of elevation change.
2 bears chased away.

Was a good way to spend the labor day weekend.