10,000/365 Day 9: Perspective

Having experimented with lines, let’s go a step further today and take up perspective. As it relates to photography, perspective is simply how an object appears to the naked eye (or your capture medium) based on spatial relationships. Perepctive can vary depending on several things, such as the lens used, our position relative to our subject, and subjects’ positions relative to one another.

The form of perspective that most of us are familiar with is linear perspective. This manifests in two ways: first, as objects become more distant they appear smaller because their visual angle decreases. Second, if you have strong lines or edges in your photos, they will appear to diminish toward what’s called a vanishing point. The further away you are from your subject, the more pronounced the perspective effect; this is also, in turn, influenced by the type of lens used. Take the photo of the row houses as an example; the part closer to the photographer appears much larger, and diminishes as the distance from the camera increases. If the houses were longer, there would be an even more pronounced vanishing point, ’til the last houses in the row would appear very small if they were visible at all. The building is the same height from end to end, but because of the perspective, its far side appears much shorter than the near side.

Compression depending on focal length: If your photo contains multiple elements, you can use perspective as an element of composition to change the apparent relationship among those elements. Let’s try that again in English. The images of the bicycles below show how the use of different focal lengths effect the apparent “distance” between the bikes. The shots were taken at 24mm, 50mm, and 85mm, with the framing of the shot more or less the same from one photo to the next. You’ll notice that the bicycles haven’t been moved; they’re in the same position. I wasn’t (I had to keep stepping back as I zoomed in to maintain the composition). You’ll notice that in each shot, everything appears a bit closer together even though it’s still occupying the same physical space.

Perspective comes into play in nearly every form of photography, including portraits, nature photography, and pretty much any other form you can think of. It’s a reason to choose your lenses carefully, but it’s also a good reason to decide whether you want to “zoom” with your feet or with the lens, since it’s not just the “size” of the subject that will change within the frame, but also its relation to the rest of what’s depcited.

Keep up with the project, share your progress, feedback and questions:
Project page (where you’ll also find a FAQ and other goodies)
The entries day-by-day (the blog entries)
10,000/365 Flickr Group (to share and discuss your shots)

85mm
85mm
50mm
50mm
24mm
24mm

10,000/365: JANUARY: A Few Fundamentals

Today starts the first month of the First 10,000’s 2013 365 Day Project. Since that’s a bit of a mouthful, from now on I’ll be referring to it as 10,000/365.

Last year’s project was a bit of a mess. I had the bright idea of starting off mid-year, which didn’t work too well; the fact that the project itself had no logical order probably didn’t help matters much, either. So this time out, I’m starting on January 1, and also organizing things in a way that will hopefully be a bit easier to follow. The first month’s projects will be geared toward photographers who are just getting started, or toward photographers who’d like to brush up on their fundamentals. Each exercise will give you a fragment of your camera’s capabilities to work with, so that by the time the month is out, you should be pretty comfortable with it, and how it works. When next month starts, we’ll be delving into some fundamentals of composition and finding your own visual “voice” and style.

But for now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Below this post, you’ll find the first day’s assignment. If you’d like to see what’s ahead, you can head to the project page. If you’d like to share with others who are doing the project, head to our Flickr group page. And if you have questions or suggestions, contact us. Meantime, let’s get shooting!

Keep up with the project, share your progress, feedback and questions:
Project page (where you’ll also find a FAQ and other goodies)
The entries day-by-day (the blog entries)
10,000/365 Flickr Group (to share and discuss your shots)

Lucky Shot?

Meter Matey

Every once in a while, I’ll go over a day’s worth of shots (or will be looking over someone’s shoulder while they’re browsing theirs), and one or the other of us will comment that a shot was “lucky.” I got to thinking about this. What role does luck play in all of it, if any?

I hesitate to chalk it up to skill, after all. I mean, if you’re Joe McNally or Moose Peterson or whomever, then yeah, you’ve got oodles of skill and experience behind you. I’m none of those individuals, however, so I don’t have quite the same reservoir of skill and/or experience to draw from. So some shots clearly are luck, because they’re the convergence of just the right time, place, and subject, and you, or me, or even Joe McNally being there (I’m sure even he gets the occasional lucky shot).

So if it’s not luck, and it’s not skill, what is it exactly? Woody Allen once said* that half of life is showing up. Arthur Fellig (a.k.a. Weegee) said** something similar: “f/8 and be there.” So. Be there, and have your camera. The rest, at least in theory, will take care of itself. All the luck in the world isn’t worth a hill of beans if you don’t have your camera, though, so make sure you have it.***

Since I like to give examples, have a look at my neighborhood Jack Sparrow. I’ve seen this guy at least half a dozen times in the last year, and each one of those times, I haven’t had my camera. Can’t blame him. He was there, after all, dressed to the nines and being his photogenic self. I was there, too. But my camera’s not his responsibility, so missing the shot those other several times I can’t blame on anybody but me.

Any of those other times could’ve been a lucky shot, but wasn’t. It’s the preparedness — having your camera, knowing how to use it, and being ready to use it — that separates the lucky shots from the fish stories, the missed stuff and all that we wish we could’ve gotten but didn’t. There’s some truth in the adage that we make our own luck, but if we don’t have what we need to capitalize on it, it goes to waste.

*At least I’m pretty sure it was Woody Allen. I think from now on, I may just attribute everything to Abraham Lincoln, just on general principle. Sooner or later, I’m bound to hit on something he actually said.

**Yes, I’m sure this time.

***Why don’t we attribute this one to Yogi Berra while we’re at it? The “hill of beans” bit at least sounds in character.

Composition Basics: Negative Space

Figure 1

In simple terms, negative space is the space around your subject. Sometimes this means completely isolating your subject against a stark background, but just as often (as with this photo by Robert Adams,  or to a lesser degree in Steve McCurry’s famous photo of an Afghan refugee girl)  it involves the creative use of emptiness as a backdrop against which your subject can breathe. While we sometimes want context and plenty of it, there are other times when having too much in the frame takes the focus off of your subject where you’d like it.

Figure 2

There are a lot of ways to acheive negative space. Shadows, silouhettes, bare backgrounds, and shallow depth of field all help to isolate your subject. The end result can change the meaning of the photo by putting the subject in a different frame. In short, it’s a good compositional technique to have in your toolbox.

But enough about theory. Let’s see what this looks like in practice, starting with Figure 1. My eight-legged friend — we’ll call him Boris — was mending his “net” first thing in the morning. Using a shallow depth of field takes details out of the background against which it would’ve been easy to miss Boris. I also chose to underexpose significantly (according to the meter, anyway) to give Boris and his web a bit more “pop” against a darker background.

Figure 3

Negative space can, of course, be tricky to navigate. It’s one thing when your background is a holly tree; it’s something else when your background is busier, as happens with this statue — who we’ll call Dolores — that’s set against a background of brightly-colored flowers, columns, trees, grass, and a pretty sizeable swarm of gnats. In Figure 2, I experimented with having Dolores surveying her domain, and figured that a shallow depth of field would give the impression of the columns without them ending up a distraction. You can see about how well that worked out.

So in Figure 3, I reframed the shot. Better, but still not quite there. This time poor Dolores looks as though she’s got a tree growing out of one side of her face (in case you’re wondering why I didn’t just shoot her other side, I’d have been trading columns and flowers for the less-attractive side of a house and some particularly ugly undergrowth).

Figure 4

So we end up at Figure 4, where I’ve said to hell with negative space, and decided to mostly fill the frame with Dolores’ cracked visage. “But wait,” you say. “This was supposed to be about negative space!” And it is, dear reader, it is… including not being so attached to the idea of something that you settle for a bad photo just to say you used it. If negative space “makes” the image, by all means, use it. But there will be times, as I’ve shown here, that no matter how badly you’d like to use something, it’s not necessarily the best tool for the job. Put that in your pipe and smoke it (preferably against a nice, neutral background).

Take Sharper Photos!

Want to avoid photos like this? You’ve come to the right place.

I’m a sucker for sharpness. Not so much sharp objects (oh, the stories I could tell…), but sharp images. Not all types of photography call for razor-sharp images — we don’t need to see grandpa’s nose hairs in high-def — but often as not, if you’re shooting anything from architecture to zebras, you want a tack-sharp image. Our eyes, after all, resolve quite a bit of detail. We don’t even realize how much detail ’til we look at a photo of something we’d seen earlier with the naked eye and realize it’s a bit soft. What follows are a baker’s dozen tips for getting sharper images.

1. Focus properly. If you haven’t done this, it doesn’t matter how many of the subsequent steps you get right. Whether you’re using auto or manual focus, figure out what your camera’s going to be using for a focal point. Some cameras will default to a center point for both focus and metering, while others will either allow you to select a focal point, or will choose one for you depending on the focus mode you’re using (AF-S, AF-C, MF, etc.). If you’re not sure which your camera’s using, or how it uses them, consult your manual.

2. Compose properly. Related to the point above, depending on what and/or how much needs to be in focus, you may need to tweak your composition to keep the right bits in focus. If you’re shooting wide open on an f/1.8 or f/2.8 lens and your subject’s not facing you full-front, you may find that one eye’s in focus and the other’s not, for instance. This might mean re-framing the shot.

3. Support your lens properly. Your best bet is to use a dedicated support, like a tripod (your best bet) or a monopod (not as good as a tripod, but not chopped liver, either). When that kind of support isn’t allowed (in a museum, for instance), isn’t practical (you’re on a long hike and even a few extra ounces would be too much), or just isn’t available (you left your tripod at home, you scallywag), then proper handholding technique is a must. There’s a great tutorial at http://www.moosepeterson.com/techtips/shortlens.html If you’re sans support, use anything else that’s close at hand; brace yourself or your camera against a building, branch, table, rock, friend, or whatever else you’ve got handy.

4. Use a fast shutter speed. As a rule of thumb, I try not to go below 1/125 if I’m “holding”. However, on a full-frame camera, your shutter speed should be, at a minimum, the same as the focal length you’re using, while on a crop-sensor camera, it should be the same as the effective focal length. In the former instance, that means if your lens is at 200mm, you should be shooting at 1/200; in the latter instance, 200mm on a crop sensor is 300mm, so shoot at 1/300.*

5. Use good gear. I know, I know. Gear doesn’t matterexcept when it does. Not all cameras and lenses are created equal. Some lenses just aren’t sharp. Buy the best you can afford, comparing lenses, and checking for sample variations.** Similarly, if you’re going to use filters, don’t cheap out. Yes, good filters (UV, polarizer, ND, or even effects filters) can go for upward of a hundred bucks or more… but if you buy a cheap filter that vignettes at the wide end, flares badly, or softens your images (and filters can do all those things, and then some), you’ve hobbled your lens.

6. Know your gear. Lenses generally perform best between f/8-f/16. Some will allow for up to a stop in either direction, but they won’t be at their sharpest from corner to corner (you’ll lose sharpness in the corners first). You already know, hopefully, that shooting wide open tends to severely limit your depth of field, but there’s a tradeoff if you stop all the way down, too: while you’ll theoretically get more depth of field, you’ll also lose sharpness, and gain lens diffraction.***

7. Use a light touch, especially when shooting handheld. Don’t “jerk” the shutter button or mash it down, since that introduces a bit of blur into the picture.

8. Use Low ISO. Higher ISO’s introduce noise and loss of detail. Use of noise reduction, either in-camera or in post, can remedy the noise problem, but in nearly every instance, also leads to further loss of detail and sharpness. Use the lowest ISO you can get away with while keeping your other settings (shutter and aperture) within reasonable limits for the way you’re shooting, and also bear in mind that what counts for “high” ISO and noise will depend both on your camera and on your personal preferences.

9. Relax. Ragged breathing, shaking, and nervousness can all blur your images. If you need to, take the time to clear your head, catch your breath, and relax.

10. Shooting at a slow shutter speed? Use your camera’s burst feature. I prefer to get the shot as close to correct as I can on the first try. With that said, I’ve found that if I’m shooting under less-than-ideal conditions (in the wind, or at a slightly lower shutter speed), it helps to fire off a short burst. One of those three should be a useable shot.

11. Does your camera or lens have image stabilization? Use it. Shooting unsupported in low light with a slow lens? Consider using flash if it’ll salvage your aperture and shutter speed.

12. If you’re using a camera that doesn’t allow much manual control, like a camera phone or a compact, don’t despair. Familiarize yourself with its modes and options; most will have image stabilization or ISO boost features, and several companies manufacture supports small enough to fit in a pocket or purse that can be used on the ground or on tabletops. Using a support in conjunction with your camera’s timer feature (and nearly every camera has one) can be a huge help.

13. Failing all the above, sharpen in post. Just bear in mind that sharpening (known in some programs as an unsharp mask) is meant to take what’s soft and enhance it, not to rescue a photo that wasn’t in focus to start with. It also helps to bear in mind that over-sharpening can add noise and other artifacts that will detract from the photo rather than making it look better.

Finally, remember that not every photo needs to be tack-sharp throughout. That doesn’t mean that you should pass off all of your sloppiest work as “art,” but if your instincts tell you that the subject is compelling and the composition is dynamic, a bit of imperfection can actually be just the thing to humanize the photo, as with the example at left.

*Compacts make an utter mess of this, since you can’t always tell what the crop factor is. If your camera doesn’t have any way of telling you, use your best guess. There’s an article here that’s good if you’re trying to make sense of the whole full frame versus cropped thing.

**Sample variation: In theory, two of the same lens from the same manufacturer should perform the same way. In practice, they don’t always. You want to check autofocus speed (if the lens autofocuses), focus accuracy, and sharpness at several focal lengths and apertures. This goes much faster with a prime (there’s only one focal length to test) than with a zoom, but it’s a good idea to check. Sometimes there’ll be significant differences between lenses; sometimes they all perform equally well (or badly). At least you’ll have found out before you get it home.

***Lens diffraction: In brief, here’s what happens: past a certain point (usually around f/22 and above), your aperture blades diffract (scatter) light because you’re trying to squeeze it through a smaller opening. This can be used to interesting effect (you can get a “starburst” look from bright light sources), but you’ll be sacrificing sharpness to get it.

Do Over!

Seward Johnson, King Lear

A lot of artists understand the importance of keeping a childlike spirit. With that in mind, here’s your official permission to call the occasional “Do over!” It’s not quite the same as when you’ve lost your 874th Rock, Paper, Scissors or hit a wiffle ball over the neighbor’s fence, but every once in a while, you just need to go back to something that didn’t go the way you planned the first time (or even one that may have gone perfectly well), and give it another go.

Things change all the time. I was reminded of this on a visit to the Grounds for Sculpture this past weekend. Several of the pieces on exhibit were still there from my first visit a couple of years back, but (as with any other museum) several had also been changed. So, while I had the chance to revisit some of my previous “subjects,” as with the photos at left of Seward Johnson’s King Lear, some old friends had gone, and some new ones had been put in their places. That’s often true of our subject matter, whether it’s human, animal, vegetable or mineral. Those changes, incidentally, are an opportunity to revisit those subjects over time, to note and document those changes.

Seward Johnson, King Lear

The technology we use “evolves,” too. Sometimes it’s the difference in a camera body — we’ve moved from point-and-shoots to SLR’s, changed the software with which we edit (and how we use it; I’m not as heavy-handed with the edits as I once was), discovered speedlights or tripods or wide-angle lenses… and each of these things allows us to do something we couldn’t do before, or at least to do what we’d done earlier a bit differently.

But, of course, it’s not just the subjects and the gear that change. We’re changing and evolving all the time as well. We pick up new skills and new ideas, while some other things fall by the wayside. I’m not the same photographer that I was two years ago, for reasons that have nothing to do with which camera was around my neck when I made these photos. I would hope that my skills now are a bit sharper than they were then, my eye perhaps a bit more receptive to what’s going on in front of it. As that happens, it can be a good idea to go back to something you’ve shot earlier, not just to see how you’d do it differently, but also hopefully to shoot it better than you did the first time around.

Seward Johnson, King Lear

Subjects, gear, skills… it’s all changing and evolving daily. And it matters, all of it. We can’t, or at least shouldn’t, shoot as though nothing’s changed if and when something does. So revisit your subjects from time to time, since all of them make a difference in how, what, and sometimes even why we shoot what we do, the way we do.

Your turn (no tagbacks)!

A few words about the shots that accompany this post: All three are of the same subject, in the same place. The first was shot in November, 2010 on a Kodak compact; the second shot on a D7000; and the third on a Fuji X10. The odd color cast on the Fuji shot actually isn’t post-processing, but rather a happy accident owing to a quirk in how Picasa reads Fuji RAW files.

More on the Grounds for Sculpture: http://www.groundsforsculpture.org

How To Photograph Plays and Recitals

Nothing like the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd… If you’ve got a kid, friend, or relative in a play, recital, or other performance and you happen to own a decent camera, don’t be surprised if you’re pressed into service as the photographer for the evening; even if you haven’t been, it’s a great opportunity to try something new with a bunch of willing subjects, and to be entertained in the process. So whether it’s community theater, a high school musical, or a dance recital, here’s a few tips for getting your best shot.

Your preparation can actually start well in advance of the main event. Before you arrive, see if you can get your hands on some of the music used, or a script. This will give you an idea of who’ll be doing what when.

If you’re shooting because you’ve got kids or friends in the play, see if you can’t make it to a dress rehearsal. You’ll be able to do things you couldn’t if you were there on the night of a performance (standing, using a tripod in the aisles, moving around the venue for different angles and perspectives… you can even ask the director about limited flash use). You may also get the chance to get shots of the cast and crew relaxing, goofing off, et cetera.

Bring more memory than you think you need (better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it), and bring spare batteries. Make sure your batteries are charged and memory cards are formatted. I would also suggest bringing some kind of support. While a tripod is going to give you the most stability, it’s also going to be bulky; a monopod does quite nicely without taking up much space. Not only will it stabilize the camera, it will also help to keep your lines straight. If nobody’s sitting directly in front of you, don’t be afraid to brace your elbows on the seat back for additional support.

Choose your lenses carefully (more on that below), and make sure everything – camera body, lens(es), batteries, memory and support – is packed.

Once you arrive, scout your location. You’ll want to pay attention to the pitch of the seating area since some venues have steeper seating than others. Above all, you’ll need clear sight lines – something that minimizes the number of heads in your shots – and you may want an aisle seat for easy access, and having your shooting side free of obstructions. I’ve had better luck off to the sides than in the orchestra seating (again, fewer heads). Somewhat further from stage is better (so you’re not craning your neck, and so the angles look more natural). Arrive early so you can try a few different seats and figure out what works best for you. If you’re using a support, make sure you’ve left sufficient space for it.

About your lens choices: Fast primes are nice for the options they afford you in terms of shutter speed and lower ISO. Having said that, you’re going to be confined to one place for extended periods of time, which eliminates the possibility of zooming/reframing on your feet, and also taking a number of compositional possibilities off the table. A zoom lens – even a slow one – will give you a greater degree of freedom. If it’s a musical, I suggest something that starts wide to be able to encompass what’s going on in the big song and dance numbers. Dramas give you a bit more leeway with a tighter field of view because the staging doesn’t tend to be quite so scattered. In any event, whatever you pack, just be ready to adapt on the fly.

Check your settings: Shoot with the highest quality your camera will allow. That means shooting RAW if you have the option or the inclination, or in the highest-quality JPEG setting your camera has. You’ll likely want/need to edit your photos later, and the more information they contain, the better they’ll stand up to editing.* At the very least, allot one card per act (two per, if your camera has two slots). Auto white balance. Your ISO should be sufficiently high that it allows you to use a decent shutter speed and aperture. If you’re not already familiar with how your camera behaves at high ISO, try some test shots in low light. In any event, unless you’re using a camera that performs exceptionally well at very high ISO’s, don’t go past 1600 ISO. You’ll lose a lot of detail, and notice a lot of noise, especially in dark areas (even if your camera applies noise reduction). Your choice of metering will depend on how you’re shooting; if you’re going to shoot in auto or a priority mode (which, again, I’d suggest you don’t), use center or spot-weighted metering, because average/matrix metering is going to take into account the entire scene, and if the action’s taking place against a black, or very dark, background, you’re going to have some seriously funky exposures, probably with a lot of blown highlights. If you’re shooting manual, it doesn’t matter much; you’ll be ignoring the meter anyway.**

Noises off: First and foremost, turn off your flash. Let me repeat: never, never, never EVER shoot the performance using flash. I don’t care if the blue-haired old lady in the fifth row is doing it. You know better (and if you didn’t, you do now). It’s going to be a distraction to those sitting around you, which is bad enough. Worse still — and I speak from experience here — it’s a huge distraction to the performers. Likewise, if your camera uses an AF assist light, shut that off too. It’s not quite as much of a distraction as a flash, but it’s pretty darn close.

Speaking of distractions, if your camera has a “quiet” setting, use it. That means turning off the little beep that lets you know the photo’s in focus, turning off the shutter noise that the camera makes when it takes a photo (if it has one), and using the setting that quiets the “slap” of the mirror if your camera allows that. Finally, shoot using the viewfinder and not the camera’s LCD. You’ll have a steadier hand, your focusing be faster and more accurate (both manual and auto focus), and you’re also keeping your camera from being a distraction for those seated nearby.

Okay, now it’s show time… and time to shoot in manual. It’s not as hard as it seems, but this is one instance where it pays off. Here’s why: left to its own devices, your camera will try to expose any scene to look like it’s daylight. When you’re dealing with a scene where the lighting is far from ideal, shooting in Auto or even in a Priority mode is going to lead to your camera defaulting to a wide aperture and/or long shutter speed. What’s worse, the end results aren’t likely to look like what you saw in front of you.

While we’re on the subject of aperture and shutter speed, if you’re shooting with a long lens, I’d suggest you sacrifice aperture before shutter speed. If the scenery’s a bit out of focus, nobody’s going to mind, but using a shutter speed that’s too slow is going to leave everybody looking a bit ghostly, if not ghastly. If you’re using a short telephoto zoom (105mm or less at the long end), you can get away with shooting at about f/5.6-f/8 1/125 handheld, and at about 1/200 at the same apertures with a longer zoom, depending on the lighting. Check your photos as you go – you’re only checking at this stage, not deleting/editing/obsessing – so you know what settings need to be tweaked. Don’t be afraid to underexpose a bit (you can brighten photos later), but try to avoid overexposure, since it’s very difficult to recover blown highlights.

Finally, shoot with your ears open, especially if you’re shooting a musical or dance recital. Sometimes getting the shot means not just looking for it, but listening for it. At intermission, check your battery, changing if needed. Change your memory card whether you think you need it or not. Above all, remember why you’re there, and don’t obsess over getting the shot to the point where you miss the important part – the performance itself.

*It also helps if you have to recover highlights or shadows later.

**This takes a little practice, or at least a couple of test shots. The reason I suggest ignoring your meter is because your meter is likely going to tell you the photo’s irredeemably underexposed if you shoot at these settings, but the photos will be a close approximation of what you saw on the stage. Pay attention to the lighting, however, since you may have to adjust from time to time based on how it changes.

If any of you have tips of your own, let’s hear ’em!

Expectation, Perception and Reality

Big Day Out

In a post a couple of days ago (Rule 32: Don’t Take Unnecessary Photos), I briefly touched on the time we waste on photos that just aren’t worth it. I chalked it up, at least in part, to the fact that quite a few of us hate to head out with a camera, only to return with an empty memory card. I think there’s a bit more to it than that, though.

First, see your subject for what it is. We don’t always do this; sometimes we’re superimposing our expectations on the subject, thinking a few moves ahead to what it will look like once we’re done fiddling with it. Our expectations can color our perception to the point where they become the reality we see, although not reality as it is. We know what we want the photo to look like, which is fine, but not when you keep a photo that’s not worth it because you’re attached to the idea of it, or when you throw away a shot that’s good on its own merits because it doesn’t measure up to some nebulous ideal.

Second, pay close attention to what’s in your viewfinder. What’s just as counterproductive as a careless choice of subject is when we put more faith in “post” than we do in the fundamentals. So what if it’s blurry, or crooked, or the exposure’s off and the subject’s not all that interesting? We have an unsharp mask, a crop utility, and a clone tool, dammit! Only that’s not quite how it works. As I’ve mentioned before, you’re not only making more work for yourself by shooting carelessly, you’re also decreasing the odds of getting what you’re after. Postproduction takes what’s already there and enhances it… not just the good stuff, but also, sometimes, the glaring flaws we’d counted on it to fix.

Finally, be honest — brutally so, if necessary — about the end result. We often convince ourselves that our work is awful; sometimes we’re right. Sometimes, however, what we’re disappointed in isn’t the photograph itself. It’s the distance between what was in front of us when the photo was made, and the expectations we’ve placed on that photo. If you stop to think about it for a second, I’m sure you can think of photos that came out just as you envisioned them, as well as some that didn’t, and others still that you felt were better than you had any right to expect. None of these things present problems in and of themselves.

However, it’s entirely possible to be crippled by our own expectations. On the one hand, we may think a photo is worse than what it is because we had something else in mind. On the other, we may also think it’s better than it is — or think we can improve or “save” it — because what we expected, or wanted, has become ingrained in what’s on the screen or the print.

We can’t always set ourselves free of our own expectations, nor can we realistically sharpen our perception to a point that it’s going to be 100% reliable 100% of the time. What’s left is the reality — sometimes disappointing, often stranger, but also many times far beyond our expectations. If we want to save ourselves some serious headaches and wasted time, it starts with acknowledging that reality (even if it’s an artistic, and not more tangible) reality. That means setting your work free from your excuses, from what you meant to do or thought you ought to have done, and to acknowledge that this piece of work, at this point in time, is done. You owe it to what you’ve done, and to yourself, to let it stand or fall exactly as it is; get the hang of that, and you can begin to move closer to what you’d like it to be.

Using Portrait Versus Landscape for Your Photos

Figure 1

Let’s start off by explaining what Portrait and Landscape are, exactly, for anyone reading this that doesn’t know. Portrait orientation is a more  generally reserved for… well, portraits, like Figure 1. Landscape orientation for landscapes, as in Figure 2. Makes sense, right? So what’s with Figure 3, which shows a portrait (of sorts) in Landscape orientation?

This is worth thinking about since it’s one of the first decisions we make when we decide to make a photo. Here are a few things to think about when you choose whether to shoot in Landscape or in Portrait:

First of all, where’s the eye going? Also bear in mind that once the photo’s taken, you’re effectively trying to lead your viewer around by the eyeballs. Where do you want their eye to go? While there’s a lot that goes into composition, a general rule of thumb is that landscape tends to lend itself to “panning” (the eye’s following the horizontal axis), whereas portrait favors “tilting” (the eye follows the vertical axis) Sometimes there will be lines within the photo that draw the eye, but just as often it’s the shape of the subject itself (or the interplay of its various shapes) that’s doing the work for you.

Figure 2

Landscape is great for creating a sense of context, since it practically begs you to provide some background for your subject. Portrait orientation, on the other hand, is helpful when you want your subject to be the center of attention. Of course, that’s only a guideline, since the way you frame the shot in either case (and specifically, how close or far you are in relation to your subject) can either isolate or contextualize your subject just as well as the way you’re holding your camera.

And that, in a roundabout way, brings us to another consideration. We’re conditioned by years of seeing things presented in a certain way. So much of what we see — television, the monitor on which you’re reading this, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks — is in Landscape that we expect certain kinds of scenes to be presented that way. It’s expansive, inclusive, and informal. On the other hand, so much of portraiture, from Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington to Platon’s portraits of world leaders, relies on what we’ve come to read as the formality of the Portrait format. Using one format where the other would normally be used is a way to work against type on a subconscious level; a horizontal portrait, for instance, can make someone seem more approachable.

 

Figure 3

Using the Rule of Thirds sometimes also means changing your orientation. If you’re using your viewfinder or LCD’s grid lines (or even just eyeballing it), you may have something that lines up perfectly where it “should” on the grid lines. However, it could also be an awkward, or otherwise ineffective, composition. Try changing the orientation and reframing the shot. This is also true when you’re shooting more than one person, since a vertical photo tends to emphasize closeness (something to bear in mind if you’re shooting a group of friends), whereas a horizontal photo, if not framed properly, can make your subjects seem a bit lost or insignificant.

Here’s what I’d like you to do: Experiment. If you tend to shoot everything in one orientation, try the other. Or, if you tend to shoot certain types of subjects with the same orientation, change things up and see what it does to your composition and framing. If you’re all about context, see what happens when you zoom in on the details; this can have the added bonus of making you notice, and appreciate, details you might’ve missed or otherwise passed over. If, on the other hand, you’re all about detail, enjoy the forest and skip the trees for a bit. Sometimes these small changes can make a big difference, especially at times we’re starting to feel things getting a bit stale.

Figure 4

And here’s something else to try, just for fun: Instead of aligning your camera in a conventional portrait or landscape orientation, use a diagonal line within the photo (even if it’s a diagonal created by a vanishing point) as a guide to align the camera. Take Figure 4 as an example; the landscape format would tend to lead the eye from left to right, and in fact the signs do just that. At the same time, however, the slight diagonal tends to lead the eye “upward” at the same time. The results aren’t always going to be spectacular (indeed, the jury’s still out on Figure 4), but I’ve found that this can be effective at times when you have a really busy frame. When you’ve only got one strong subject, it just looks like they’re toppling over, but if there’s a lot going on, tweaking your orientation can be an option to slow your viewer down. Not only can this give you a different perspective (literally), it’s also a way to play with the leading lines within the photo and where the viewer’s eye is led as a result.

Autofocus Versus Manual Focus

Pan

If you’re anything like me — which, for the purposes of this post, means you’re just about blind as a bat without your glasses — autofocus can be a godsend. It’s pretty useful for a host of other reasons and situations as well. Shooting sports or animals, shooting from the hip, shooting at odd angles… there are times that it’s a good thing that the camera can take care of at least one variable for you, and generally do it pretty reliably. There are times, however, when AF isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, and you need to eyeball your shot for the best results.

  • Shallow DOF (Depth of Field): This comes into play in two situations. One is when you’re using a lens wide open (say, in the 1.4-3.5 range), either to let in more light or to blur your background. The other is when you’re using a long lens. Someone who knows the physics of these things could probably explain far better than I could, but for whatever reason, a lens racked to 300mm at f/8 acts very much like a 50mm at f/1.8. In either case, your focal plane (the part of the photo that’s in focus) can be razor thin. While autofocus will pick something to focus on, the camera’s idea of what should be in focus may not be the same as yours.
  • Low Contrast/Lousy Lighting: Whether your camera uses contrast detection or phase detection for autofocus, both systems require varying degrees of contrast in order to work well (there’s a better explanation here). Bottom line: if there’s not much contrast (your subject’s color and lighting is similar to its background, for instance) or if you’re working in low light, your camera’s AF may “hunt” for a focal point.
  • Stealth: In low light (where your AF assist light is likely to go off) or if you’re using older, screw-drive AF lenses (which are cheaper than their newer counterparts, but can also be noisy), you may inadvertently draw attention to yourself at a time when you’re trying to stay incognito.
  • Deer Photobomb

    “Busy,” Cluttered, or Active Scenes: I usually love my camera’s AF system, but there are times that it works a little too well. I had initially tried a couple of shots of the deer in Figure 2 using autofocus, only to find that the little AF point in my viewfinder kept skittering between blades of tall grass rather than locking on the deer, where I wanted it. Similarly, if you’re trying to shoot through a chain link fence or a window (especially if the window’s dirty, or if there are reflections you’d rather didn’t distract from the subject), you may find that the AF keeps wanting to focus on what’s closer.

  • Portraits: If you’re filling the frame with your subject’s face (and, for that matter, even when you’re not), you usually want your subject’s eyes in focus. Not their cheek, their nostrils, nose hairs, unibrow, et cetera. And it never fails that when you’re close in on your subject, your autofocus will focus on anything but the eyes.
  • Moving subjects: This one may seem counterintuitive, and it takes practice, but if you’re dealing with a moving subject, it can help to manually focus rather than hoping the AF locks on correctly. It’s especially true when you’re dealing with a subject that’s moving through a scene with lots of foreground/background distractions.
  • Static Subjects: If you’re photographing, say, your dinner, it’s not likely to run away on you (I hope). Using manual focus at a time you don’t necessarily have to can be useful because it forces you to slow down, but also because it can give you the ability to fine-tune what you want in focus.
  • Prefocusing: This isn’t purely manual focusing, but I’m going to add it here because it’s related. If your AF system is having difficulty acquiring your subject for one of the reasons above (or any of the others) but you don’t want to turn AF off for some reason, you can manually focus on your subject (or at least get close to correct focus) and then let the camera take over.

Last, but by no means least, there’s the Stubborn Camera. There will be times that your camera will, for reasons known only to itself, focus on anything and everything but your subject. You could be taking a photo of a black spider on a white wall, and your camera will seemingly fall madly in love with a nondescript part of the wall, totally ignoring the spider. Or it will focus on the clouds, rather than the bear that’s looming over you, threatening to… well, in that case, I think focusing is the least of your problems.

Have any tips you’d like to share? Comment below, or feel free to inbox me!

Photo Projects

Self Portrait in Rust

It’s easy to settle into a rut. Even when we know, on some level, that it hasn’t really “all been done,” we feel as though we’ve done… well, if not everything, then enough of the same thing to feel like we’ve settled into a rut. It can be helpful at times like that to set a project for yourself. Having a set of guidelines — as loose or specific as you feel you want or need — can be a great motivator, and a good way to beat the block. Here are a few of my personal favorites:

1. 365 Days project: This one’s a perennial favorite, probably because it can be either as simple or as complicated as you’d like. The most basic requirement is to take a photo of something every day. Beyond that, you can add additional “rules.” Daily self-portraits are common (and more challenging than they might seem; see below). You can also, as one of my friends has done, choose a specific time at which each photo must be taken, or blog the results, as another friend likes to do.

2. 52 Weeks project: Maybe you’re pressed for time, or just plain absent-minded. In that case, set aside one day a week and photograph something at the same time each week.

3. Choose a limit: Take a day, or several, to shoot with only a prime lens. If you don’t own a prime, choose a single focal length on your zoom lens and stick to it. Or, if you usually only shoot in color, set your camera to black-and-white. Only shoot during the day, or during the Golden Hours? Try night photography, or challenge yourself to shoot in lighting conditions that you’d normally consider crappy. In each instance, the idea is to break your old habits and patterns and find new ways to shoot.

4. Shoot one thing: This is a variation on the 365 Days/52 Weeks idea above. Find something — be it a building, an object (like your car) an animal (like your cat) or even yourself, and take at least one shot of it daily. Not only will the resulting photos let you track the changes in your subject over time, it’s also much more challenging than it might seem in the first few days. After all, you’ll soon find yourself looking for new angles and new ways to shoot the same subject, which can present its own set of challenges while it also pushes you to expand your imagination and creativity.

5. Find a Theme: This can be something concrete (shooting shop windows, or in cemeteries, for instance) or something relatively abstract (like trying to capture a photo of a concept, like love or death). The challenge here is to avoid cliches, whether in your choice of subject matter, or in your composition/representation if you’ve chosen a subject that’s often photographed.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to experiment. Put your own spin on these ideas, or come up with something daring of your own. If you’ve come up with an interesting project, let us know!

Copy Shamelessly

Ballerina

I save lots of things. I have piles of ticket stubs, recipes, magazine articles, greeting cards, scraps of paper that I jot things down on… and writing. Lots of it. I’ve discarded quite a bit of what I’ve written over the years, but I’ve also hung onto enough of it to have a pretty good idea of how my writing has evolved over the years. 

With the older writing especially, I can usually tell what I was reading at the time by how I was writing: A bit of Benchley here, a pinch of Barthelme there, the occasional pinch of Rushdie. It’s not just writers who do it, either. Anyone who creates pretty much anything relies on the work of those who’ve gone before for equal parts inspiration and road map. So it’s hardly surprising when we find our work echoes, or even outright mimics, those whose efforts inspired us to do what we do.

When we first catch on to the fact that we’re doing this, we might be a little ashamed. If we were any good, we think, our work would be more authentic, and would speak with something more of our own voices. It’s okay, though; what’s important, at least early on, is the simple fact that you’re doing something, creating something. It’s in that process that we find our voices, and the confidence to speak with them. It’s only later on, if we’re using someone else’s voice or style as a crutch (or actively plagiarizing them) that it becomes problematic.

There’s something useful buried in that imitation, though, and it’s something that only became clear to me by hindsight. When we consciously set out to imitate someone, we’re picking apart their style and disassembling (or deconstructing, if you want to get all fancy about it) what they’ve done to figure out what makes it tick. Putting someone else’s work under that kind of microscope gives us insight into their technique, but actually trying to do what they’ve done can help us to make sense of our own work if we approach it the right way.

So, try this some time: choose a photographer, and do your level best to create something that looks exactly like that person would’ve done it. If, for instance, you feel ambitious enough to take on a David LaChapelle shot, try to re-create the lighting, the makeup, the post-processing… everything. You may not be able to afford all that goes into a LaChapelle shoot (props, lighting setup, assistants, Amanda Lepore), but it can also be fun figuring out ways to get the same results on a shoestring. In the course of doing all of this, you’ll be adding to your own skill set, and also gaining an appreciation for all the work that goes into making a great photo, while also finding new ways to express your own voice in your own work.

Cold-Weather Photography Tips

If your camera had teeth, they’d be chattering right now. When the days grow shorter and colder and you’ve got Jack Frost nipping at your extremeties, you might be tempted to stay in, make some hot cocoa, and save the photography for warmer weather. Don’t; you’re missing a lot of photo opportunities!

  • Keep your batteries toasty: You might keep your AA’s in the fridge so they don’t drain as quickly. Your camera battery, similarly, won’t perform at its best when it’s cold. Keep your camera warm the best you can; failing that, keep a spare battery in an inside pocket. If your battery’s showing a faster-than-usual rate of drain, switch it for your warmer backup.
  • Use a polarizing filter if you have one. The bright light caused by the angle of the sun, and by the glare reflected off the snow. Since you may find yourself stopping the lens down to f/22 or thereabouts (which isn’t where your lens is at its sharpest), the polarizer lets you lose a couple of stops of light. In dim light, this can be a drawback, but when it’s very bright, it can be a godsend.
  • As with other times, fill flash can be helpful when the light is hinky.
  • Pay attention to your white balance; snow and bright light can wreak havoc on metering and white balance.
  • Be aware that plastic — whether in camera bodies or in lenses — behaves much differently in the cold than it would at “normal” temperatures. It loses flexibility and can become brittle. A bump or ding that might leave a small mark under normal circumstances can lead to cracks and chips in cold weather.
  • Watch out for moisture. Bring a large Ziploc bag (large enough for your camera and lens) and bag the camera before you’re inside. Similar to leaving a glass of iced tea on a table during a summer day, bringing a camera indoors from cold weather can lead to condensation in and around your gear. Bagging it first means bagging colder, drier air with your camera; the bag will fog, but hopefully your camera won’t.
  • Purchased any electronics lately? Hang onto those silica gel packets; they’re useful for removing airborne moisture.

It should go without saying that your first priority should be keeping yourself warm and safe. Bundle up, keep gloves handy, and have fun!

RAW vs. JPEG

Tubes
Tubes

There’s no shortage of debates in photography circles. Choose a subject – whether it’s one camera over another, color versus black and white, available light versus speedlights, or any number of other contentious subjects* — and there’s likely to be a wide difference of opinion. One such subject of debate is whether to shoot in RAW or in JPEG.

To figure out your options, let’s start by laying out some basic definitions. A RAW file is just that. It’s raw; it’s how your camera’s sensor “saw” what was in front of it, with very little intervention on the camera’s part. These are generally large files, since the camera takes in quite a bit of information once you’ve pressed down the shutter. It’s also undeveloped; it’s up to you to render a final image, sometimes via the camera’s built-in processor and sometimes via an external program like Aperture, Lightroom, GIMP, or Photoshop. A JPEG, on the other hand, isn’t raw; it’s been “cooked” by your camera’s processor, so the development takes place in-camera. The files are much smaller, usually because of compression applied during development, and you have a much smaller degree of control over the final result, absent postprocessing.

The difference between RAW and JPEG isn’t just one of size; it’s about the amount of information the file contains. Since I like analogies, let me give you another one. Let’s imagine that RAW is Macbeth. JPEG, being a compressed version of the RAW file, has much less information. So we’ll call that the Cliff’s Notes of Macbeth. Now let’s say you want to make changes, or crop, that file. Well, if I’m cropping Macbeth, it turns out that I can get rid of quite a bit of it and still have it make some kind of sense. With the Cliff’s Notes, however, I don’t have quite the same degree of freedom; those cuts –those edits and crops – take information away from something that’s already had quite a bit stripped away.

Processing a RAW file, then, “summarizes” based on much more information. The end result can be very close to the original, or can be very small; the point, however, is that you have control over the end result at each step in the process. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it’s not unlike the difference between developing a roll of film in your own darkroom versus sending it to CVS or Walgreen’s. Sometimes you get lucky sending your film out, but sometimes the results aren’t what you would have chosen, and if you’re particular about how your photos look, that’s not generally something you want to leave to chance.

Yes, RAW takes up quite a bit of memory, and yes, it can be a time-consuming process learning how to get your development workflow where you want it. With that said, it also gives you the kind of control and freedom that JPEG doesn’t always give you. If you want that control, try RAW. If you’re not sure, or if you want backups while you’re getting the hang of your RAW workflow, delve into your camera’s settings; nearly every camera that I’ve seen with the ability to shoot in RAW has an option to shoot JPEGs in tandem with RAW images. Use that, and you’ll always have “backups” of your originals.

Short Tips: Finding Keepers

Outdoor Plumbing

In recent weeks, I’ve mentioned the importance of deleting photos, and also of viewing your work objectively. In both cases, one of the resons for doing these things is to narrow what you’re saving down to your “keepers,” the photos you want others to see, or may want to do something with at a later date. One of the challenges you can expect to face as you try to cull your work — separating the wheat from the chaff, as it were — is figuring out what, exactly, is your best work. There are a few quick ways to do this that can help to cut down on the time you’re spending on your sorting process.

Often as not, when I’ve just come back from a day of shooting, the first thing I want to do is load my work onto the computer, view it, and critique it. After all, seeing your work at full size on a large screen is often a great way to realize what works and what doesn’t. I’ll generally sort by three categories: the stuff that’s obvious crap (out of focus, hopelessly under- or over-exposed, badly composed, or a photo that just isn’t “about” anything); the stuff that could be useable given some reasonable editing (a slight crop, maybe some work on color and contrast); and the stuff that works more or less as it is. The issue is when something doesn’t fall neatly into one of those categories. Maybe it doesn’t work as it is, but could later; maybe there’s just the nagging sense that something’s “off.” When that happens, it’s time to take other measures.

1. The Thumbnail Test: Let’s say you’ve viewed all of your work at full size, and there’s a handful of shots that you’re still not sure about. View these shots as thumbnails, rather than poring over them repeatedly at full size.* When you’re looking at something at 1,024 x 768 resolution, you may find yourself getting caught up in a series of details within the overall picture, versus seeing it whole. This can be useful if you can pull a decent-sized chunk out of the whole to function as an image all its own (let’s say that you’d end up cropping about a third of the image), but if the only thing that works is a solitary squirrel in the corner munching on a bagel, you haven’t exactly got a keeper. Viewing a thumbnail allows you to see the entire image at once, and to evaluate it in its entirety. You may not want to use this for your initial cull (something that looks sharp in thumbnail form might in fact be badly out of focus; similarly, you might miss some small detail or splash of color that could redeem an image that needed a little something on the first pass), but it’s useful if you want to narrow things down after you’ve gone through the batch the first time.

2. The Calendar Test: Let’s say you have a handful of images that might be keepers, but you’re not sure if they’re as good as you thought they were the first time out. Start by asking yourself a question: If this was on a calendar, would I really want to look at it every day for the next month? Of course, you’re not going to start printing calendars like they’re going out of style just to evaluate your images. But try putting a folder together and revisiting it on a day-to-day basis, or setting an image as your desktop background. If it’s already revealed all it can tell you by the second or third day, you might want to reconsider it.

3. The Audience Test: It’s hard to be objective about your own work. On one hand, we can become so attached to our own work that it’s hard to give it an honest critique. On the other, we can at times be so critical of our own work that we’re set to throw out something that might, in fact, have been done very well. If you have someone whose eye, judgement, and honesty you trust, ask their opinion. The perspective that a fresh set of eyes brings to your work can be invaluable in evaluating the quality of what you’re doing, and also in measuring what you’re trying to communicate with your images versus how an audience — even just an audience of one — receives them.

But those are just my tips. What are some things you’ve found useful in critiquing and sorting your own work?

*If your workspace has sufficient room, you can get a similar effect by backing away from your monitor. 

Short Tips

Untitled, Unknown

A few bits of randomness for your reading and photographing enjoyment:

Take Notes: This is especially true if you’re learning by shooting manually with a film camera rather than a digital, or if you’re learning film after having shot in digital for some time. Digital cameras will, in most cases, give you detailed EXIF data. Shooting with film? You’re on your own in that regard. If the exposure is perfect, congratulations – and good luck remembering what you did to get that perfect exposure. If, on the other hand, you’ve made a proverbial dog’s breakfast of the shot, you won’t know how to avoid making the same mistake later. As a friend used to say, “The shortest pencil is better than the longest memory.” Write it down, bearing in mind that having a pad and pen with you is useful for a number of other reasons as well, like jotting down other photographers’ contact information, giving them yours, taking down emails so you can send photos to people whose pictures you’ve made, jotting down ideas for future shoots… the list is practically endless.

Another Use for Paper: A sheet of paper can be used as an impromptu white balance card* if you’re trying to set custom white balance in a situation with screwy (or mixed) lighting. If it’s small enough, it can be used as a bounce card for your camera’s on-board flash, or even for a speedlight. As if that weren’t enough, it can also be used as an improvised reflector if your subject is strongly back- or side-lit. It won’t work quite as nicely as a purpose-built reflector, but it’s better than nothing in a pinch.

Use Your Hands: Lighting, especially outdoors, can be tricky to meter. This is especially true if you’re dealing with a scene that has numerous changes in light values (much darker or brighter in some areas than others) or when you’re trying to meter for an odd situation. For example, let’s say you’re outdoors on a bright day. You might be standing under an awning, and trying to meter for something under another, similar awning across the street. You and your subject are in shade, and there’s an awful lot of light between you. If you don’t want to use spot or center-weighted metering (or you’d like to but you don’t have the time to go back to the menus), meter on your hand.

Find Some Gaffer’s Tape: Gaffer’s tape is to photographers what duct tape is to handymen and rednecks. Many a photographer will tell you the stuff is great, if expensive. You can use it as it was intended (taping down wiring so nobody trips and breaks their neck), but why stop there? You can use it to cover the logo on your camera, to secure reflectors and other paraphernalia, to make sure your subjects know where to stand, or to make minor repairs. I’ve even seen it used as an impromptu band-aid (though I’m not endorsing that here, so as not to have a lawsuit on my hands). It’s every bit as strong as duct tape, but with a less messy adhesive and a surface that doesn’t shine, making it less obtrusive and also giving you a decent grip if you need it.

Any short tips, odd techniques, or random finds you’d like to share with our readers? Drop me a line!

The Habit of Seeing: Inside the Frame

Figure 1

So after last week, you’re paying much closer attention to what’s outside the viewfinder and outside the frame, right? All well and good, but since we’re dealing with photography here, at some point you’re going to have to, or want to, raise the finder to your eye and actually make a photo. You didn’t think all this seeing business was done just ‘cause you’d figured out what you wanted to photograph, didja?

Okay, so you’re looking through your viewfinder, and there’s your subject, large as life. You’d think you’d be all set at this point. Not quite yet. The same “rules” apply once you’re looking through the finder that applied before you decided on your subject; you still have to apply the same critical process to what’s going on in your finder that you did to what was going on in the larger world outside it.

Figure 2

Consider Figure 1. When I took this shot, I was paying closer attention to the performance artist, capturing her movements and facial expression. It wasn’t ‘til after the shot was made that I took notice of the rest of what was in the frame. Luckily, the apparatus on which she was performing – picture a carbon fiber monopod-cum-stilts thingy, which had her, and the other two women performing with her, tracing long, graceful arcs through the air – was going to bring her back to the area in another swing or two, so I changed my perspective a little, recomposed my shot, waited for it… and ended up with what you see in Figure 2.

There are other things to look for, some of which can be codified into rules (like the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Mean, both of which we’ll stop to consider another time) and others of which have more to do with simple esthetics and personal taste. Sometimes, as with the acrobats shown in the first shots, there’s no getting around the visual distractions, like power lines, traffic lights, and buildings. Among the considerations here weren’t just the crowds, but also the fact that a sizeable area around the performers was cordoned off, for both their and the audience’s safety, so certain shots and angles were off limits. Other circumstances (like shooting on a boat or in a moving car) present similar challenges, since moving in one direction or another can mean the difference between being safe or not.

Figure 3

When that’s the case, you can either look for a different angle, or even for a different subject. Bear in mind that while those background elements can be maddening sometimes – nobody wants a telephone pole sticking out of their head, no matter how good you’ve made the rest of them look – they can also be useful, if used right. You can give a sense of context, or even add touches to your photo that can be a bit disorienting (and therefore compelling in their own right).

Developing a habit of seeing as a part of cultivating your vision means broadening your vision. As we saw last week, we can’t afford to neglect what’s going on outside the frame or the finder; similarly, we can’t ignore what’s going on inside the frame when the decisive moment comes… otherwise, we’re left with a decisively bad photo.

The Habit of Seeing: Outside the Frame

Ptooey!

Only those who stand outside the frame are capable of seeing the whole picture. – Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet

Quick question for you: when does composition begin? If you’re only starting to look, or truly see, once you’ve got the viewfinder to your eye, you’re a bit too late. Getting your best photos relies on learning to see all of what’s in front of you, in order to find a worthy shot in what can sometimes be a great big mess of clutter (or, alternately, sheer boredom).

There are, of course, a few reasons to pay close attention. For one thing, what we think of as our subject – the first thing that catches our eye – might be obscuring, or drawing our attention away from another, more compelling subject. I’ve had this happen more than once in my own photos; I’ll get the shot, and when I get home and view it on my monitor, I realize that there was something else going on there that I’d totally missed the first time I looked. Sometimes that “something else” made, or would have made, for a more interesting photo if I’d been paying closer attention.

Similarly, sometimes it’s not just a single subject that makes the photo work. Sometimes it’s a pair, or group, of related things that reinforce each other. Other times, the juxtaposition of unlike or seemingly disparate things give you a different meaning than either of them would on their own. If we’re not paying attention, we’re missing those relationships, and the little things that can turn a competent shot into a great one.

Then there are times that you see something, or someone, that just makes you say, “Huh?” Things that at a glance, blend into a scene, but which, if you take the extra second to take notice of them and really think about them, end up being the visual equivalent of a pebble in your sneakers – they jab at you a bit because there’s something just a little bit “off” about them. Neglect the area outside the frame, and what’s inside it just might suffer for it.

The photo accompanying this post is an example of one of the times I got it right. I’ve shot that gargoyle (and the other three that accompany him) many times, often at different times of day. This time, I noticed birds flying around the gargoyles, and waited to see what they’d do (using my zoom as a spotting scope). One little guy flew right into the gargoyle’s mouth, but had that look about him that birds get when they’re not going to stay in one spot for very long. I waited, and this is what I got. I could’ve simply gotten the gargoyle and gone home – which is exactly what I’ve done in times past, and which makes me wonder how much else I’ve missed because I wasn’t paying attention.

When we think about our ways of seeing, it’s helpful to remind ourselves every now and again that the fraction of a second that comprises a photo is only a small part of the picture, after all. If you want what’s in the frame to be an accurate representation of, or even a means of condensing, a bigger picture, or to be able to tell a larger story, you need to be attuned to what’s going on beyond the viewfinder, and also beyond yourself. Often as not, something that drew your eye did so for a reason; there was something about its color, shape, relationship to its surroundings, or some mental association it triggered in you, that made you take notice (and take photos). If it captures your imagination, capture it in turn. Just don’t stop at that obvious photo; be willing to look around, and beyond, it to other things that might be less obvious.

The Habit of Seeing

Reflections

   Diego had never seen the sea. His father, Santiago Kovadloff, took him to discover it.
   They went south.
   The ocean lay beyond high sand dunes, waiting.
   When the child and his father finally reached the dunes after much walking, the ocean exploded before their eyes.
   And so immense was the sea and its sparkle that the child was struck dumb by the beauty of it.
   And when he finally managed to speak, trembling, stuttering, he asked his father:
   “Help me to see!”

There’s a lot of talk about talent that surrounds photography, as with any other art. While talent has its place, it isn’t enough by itself. Nobody, no matter how talented or capable they may be, emerges fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s head. Even those with a surplus of talent – those once-in-a-lifetime freaks of nature – need a sense of direction to make the most of what they’re born with. The good news is that the rest of us can take a cue or two from them as well, since with the will to learn, to practice, to fail, and never mind, try again, fail better, can make even a little talent go a long way.

There’s a lot of technique that goes into photography. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring different technical aspects of photography related to different functions and settings on this site, and will continue to do so. However, all those settings, all the skill we seek to develop in mastering not only the fundamentals of exposure, all the ways we try to approach and master realizing what we saw in our mind’s eye in the split second before we pressed the shutter, really don’t amount to much if what we’ve got is a frame of perfectly exposed emptiness.

Mind you, there could well be something going on in the frame. A lot of somethings, even, a cacophony of visual input clamoring to be seen and frozen in time. But something can have form and still be devoid of content if it’s not about anything, and there’s no “there” there. Sometimes we have to look a bit harder to see it, or may even have tried our best only to decide there’s nothing there, and that’s okay… as long as that process takes place before the photo is made.

When you’re working in a visual medium, seeking to be understood by being seen, it’s worth asking whether that vision can be learned, or if it’s something you’ve either inherently got or don’t. In the next few weeks, we’ll be talking about ways of seeing, stepping away from the technical into something that might seem a bit obscure, but is really quite practical. You can learn to see, and communicate what you’ve seen in a way that makes it make sense to someone else. And if you already know, you can find ways to do it better still.

Seeing isn’t something that’s handed down, or transmitted as if by some kind of lineage. Neither I, nor anyone else, can confer upon you a way of seeing. As I’ve written elsewhere, there’s a vision only you can have, since nobody else can see the world as you do. A codicil to that, though, is that you have to cultivate a habit of seeing. Be willing to engage what’s in your line of sight. Allow it to be present, without preconception or judgment, and – more importantly – be present to it. Dorothea Lange said once that a camera “is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” If part of the challenge is being mindful throughout the photographic process, then another, no less significant, challenge is bringing that mindfulness back to our everyday lives.

By way of a disclaimer: I don’t put myself forth as some kind of visionary. I struggle with this stuff every time I pick up a camera, and even many times when I don’t have one. One reason that Lange’s words resonate with me is because I suppose we’ve all been there… we’ve all had those lapses in vision, when our eyes weren’t altogether open or our heart wasn’t 100% in it. It takes practice and discipline, but if the photo’s worth making, so’s the effort.

A thought in closing (or in transition, if you’d rather): What do you think? What have you learned from a lifetime of seeing, and what advice would you give to someone who’d like to see more deeply?

The epigraph is taken from The Book of Embraces, by Eduardo Galeano.