September Mailbag/Follow Friday

San Juan, Puerto Rico, October 2009

I said last month that I’d feature letters in this space on a monthly basis. It’s been slim pickings, so I’ve decided to put something else in alongside the letters. The last Friday of the month, therefore, will be not only the Mailbag, but also Follow Fridays (a bit expanded from their Twitter incarnation): three photographers (and/or writers on photography) worth knowing, and following.

Three favorites this month:

Steve Coleman: Steve vanished from Twitter sometime between when I started this post and now, as I finish it. No matter. While his blog, Light In Frame, doesn’t update very often, it’s invariably worth reading when it does. Not many shooters will share not only techniques, but also their favorite spots. Steve is that rare exception who will. The photography’s an added bonus; it’s gorgeous. Website: Light In Frame/Blog here. 

Chase Guttman: Chase is the son of renowned travel photographer Peter Guttman, and to all indications, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Guttman fils has already earned recognition for his work, which spans some 45 countries. The kicker? He’s 14 (no, you won’t believe it either). Twitter: @chaseguttman /Website here/Blog here  Facebook here

Photo History: The Twitter account is a compendium of “this day in history” photographic marginalia, most of it related to historically significant photographers (some well-known, others much less so). It’s run by Jimmy Leiderman and Jeff Prinz. The web presence is a series of discussion forums covering topics like vintage photography, archival/restoration work, vintage photography news, as well as others. If you’re not only interested in the technical aspects of photography, but would also like to get a sense of context and history, this is a great place to start. On Twitter: @photohistorian/Web: Vintage Photo Forum

The Letter

Kidlet Wrangler asks: I am curious about the photographer who was arrested for videotaping the police in public. Here’s the part I’m curious about, and it’s mostly because I don’t understand how all those laws work: The photographer was told to stop videotaping, presumably by the very police he was taping. You have told us in a previous blog entry that if the person or persons you’d like to include in your pictures say no, then listen to them. How does that hold up in this example, where it’s technically legal in NY to photograph police in public, but the police have said to knock it off? Do the individuals have the right to say no, or are they included under the mass “police” law?

The laws can vary from state to state, but in NY it’s legal to photograph/videotape police activity. There is, as always, a catch: to circumvent photographers’ First Amendment rights, a number of states have included photos and videos of law enforcement under their states’ wiretap laws, meaning you technically have to get the consent of all parties (or a court order) for your “surveillance activities.”

Moral of the story: the government can conduct warrantless wiretaps; you, however, cannot (and good luck bringing up the point that you’re not conducting surveillance or wiretaps in any real sense).

What I’d written earlier about not taking someone’s picture if they ask is less a legal thing than an ethical one. If it’s a public space, individuals are technically fair game; to my mind, the photo’s not so important that you need to be a prick to get it. As for the police: if you’re in the way (obstructing their work), they have every right to tell you to get out of the area so you’re out of the way. They did, and the videoographer did as he was told, then proceeded shooting from another vantage point some distance away, whereupon they arrested him. Given that he was within his rights as far as whether he was legally allowed to tape the proceedings, and given that he wasn’t in the way, having already complied with the order, it was pretty clear that his arrest had nothing to do with obstruction (the reason given), especially when, as he pointed out, there were other people without cameras standing much closer than he was who didn’t get arrested.

The best way to handle it: basically, know your rights. The law does vary from one jurisdiction to the next, and it’s your responsibility to know the laws where you’re shooting. However, generally speaking, not only are you legally able to take those photos or that video, but law enforcement also isn’t supposed to stop you, ask to search your kit, ask to see the photos, ask you to delete them, or confiscate your camera or media. Some cops don’t know that law; others do, and hope you don’t. Best you can do is politely but firmly explain the law and see where that gets you. Just bear in mind that if they have a mind to, a cop can find any number of other things for which to search, or arrest, you, so it’s something you generally have to be careful with.

Review: The Exposure Field Guide, by Michael Freeman

The Exposure Field Guide, by Michael Freeman

Since I seem to be in the habit of simplifying things to an almost silly degree, let me at least be consistent. If we’re going to take photography down to its barest essentials, it comes down to framing a subject (composition) and getting that subject to look the way we want it to in our photographic medium of choice (exposure). There are, of course, dozens of ways to approach each of these things, and buckets of ink have been spilled on both. One author who’s added his two cents’ worth to that pile of prose is Michael Freeman, who’s approached the mental game of photography, composition, and a multitude of other subjects. While I’ll be revisiting the aforementioned works another time, today I’d like to consider Freeman’s The Exposure Field Guide: The essential handbook to getting the perfect exposure in photography; any subject, anywhere(Focal Press).

Freeman doesn’t just give an overview of the basics of exposure; if that were a photographer’s only concern, a camera’s Automatic mode would be sufficient to cover any situation under the sun (or under tungsten, for that matter). What he explores here is much more useful, whether to a beginning photographer, or a rather more experienced one who’s bedeviled by certain lighting situations.

After dealing with a handful of technical considerations in the book’s first section (terminology, sensor behavior, metering, gray cards and the like) and admitting that he’s none too fond of generalizations, Freeman nonetheless proceeds to spend the book’s next section laying out twelve types of lighting situations into which every picture falls, dealing not only with the kind of “average” lighting that makes for easy exposures, but also the low- and high-key lighting that’s the bane of many a photographer, and also leads to some of the most striking images once you’ve got the hang of the exposure.

The final sections (“Style” and “Post-Processing”) ensure that the book goes beyond exposure. There are brief pieces on finding one’s personal style, but also on using exposure to set/capture mood, making use of shadows, exposing for black and white, and the zone system, in addition to subjects like HDR imaging and exposure bracketing.

There’s more that could be said on each of these dozen scenarios, but to summarize them in a short enough form that they’d make sense in the context of a book review is to sell them short. As it is, none of the sections of this book is so long (each is two to four pages on average, with plenty of photos illustrating the principles discussed in each section) that you’ll be very long reading it.

This book’s small size (it should fit easily in your camera bag, and it probably isn’t a half-bad idea to keep a copy there) belies the wealth of information in its pages. Like Freeman’s other books, it’s thought-provoking, but just as importantly, it shows how to put those thoughts into action — to get them on paper, or on a screen, as you envisioned them when you framed the shot. If you flip through the pages at your local bookstore and are a bit intimidated by the information (as I’ll admit I initially was), that’s pretty much precisely why you need it. If, on the other hand, you’re an experienced shooter but still find yourself tripped up in certain lighting situations, this probably still wouldn’t be bad to have on hand. It won’t make you an overnight expert, but if it does nothing else, The Exposure Field Guide just might give you the confidence to take on shooting in more challenging lighting situations… and that’s where things start to get interesting.

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Repetition, Evolution and Craft

La Cruceta del Vigia, Ponce, Puerto Rico

A friend recently shared something with me that I’d like to pass along. Paying it forward, as it were. Before I show you what he shared, though, I’m going to go back a couple of weeks to Art and Fear, which I reviewed in this space. There’s a parable in there about quality versus quality.

The short version goes like this: a ceramic teacher divides his class in half, and tells half of them they’ll be graded on quantity, and the other half that they’ll be graded on quality. To get a good grade, the “quality” group has to produce a masterwork; the quantity group, on the other hand, is being graded by the pound.

When the end of class rolls around, the group graded on quantity fares better; while some of what they’ve created is of poor quality, much of it is at least competent, and some of it even great. The quality group, in the meantime, has gotten itself so bogged down in endless debates over what makes a good pot that they don’t have much to show for all their talk, and the pots are lousy anyway.

There are a few lessons to be drawn here, not least of which the simple fact that all the theory in the world, no matter how attractive or how good it may sound, doesn’t amount to squat unless you can back it with results. Just as importantly, it’s by putting things into practice that we learn what works and what doesn’t; it’s where all that theory is realized, and made concrete (or porcelain, if you’d rather).

Speaking of making it concrete, let’s go back to our regularly scheduled post. What my friend passed along is a story that unfolds over several years’ worth of practice. An artist named Jonathan Hardesty (who also goes by MindCandyMan on charted his evolution online for all to see. His first attempts at painting – just working out the basics of line, shape, color and composition – are all there, and you can chart the progress all the way through to his later works, which are fully realized art by any standard.

It’s inspirational, but not in the often-told, generally hackneyed “person just happens upon their art or craft one day and almost immediately discovers a long-buried talent” sort of way. While I’m sure that happens every now and again, I think there’s something in that conventional narrative that poisons the well, ‘cause people miss the part of the equation that involves them putting in a shitload of effort no matter how talented they are. At the beginning of this “version,” on the other hand, there’s no inkling of some phenomenal talent. There are just a handful of studies in color, line, shade and shape. That and a lot of effort that leads, slowly and seemingly inexorably, toward someone finally being able to fully realize their vision.

It’s inspiring because it applies to the rest of us, as well. There’s a debate to be had over the role and nature of talent (whether it’s inborn or cultivated), and we’ll no doubt get to that another time. Leaving talent aside for a moment, though, just think about your own work. If, as it’s been said, it takes ten thousand hours to get good at what you’d like to do, that’s an awful lot of hours to invest, especially when you’re measuring them out 1/125 of a second at a time. I’m not sure that the 10,000 number is meant to be taken literally, or if, like Jesus’ “seven times seventy,” it’s just a simple reminder that it’s something you’re going to have to do quite a lot of. Whichever it turns out to be, plan accordingly but also realize that you will see results for your effort, even if it doesn’t always feel that way at the time.

As sometimes happens, this story came along just when I needed it. It’s easy to look at other people’s amazing work and be intimidated by it. After all, they’ve already had so much time to get to where they are, and here we are – well, here I am, anyway – still a newcomer by comparison. How and when do I get to that point, if ever?

But then I’m reminded of something: when you see work like that, you’re (hopefully) seeing someone at their best. Like a first date, an artist (no matter what their medium is) is going to put their best foot forward. Often as not, that means you only get to see the pinnacle of their work – the peaks, with all the valleys (the false starts, the doubts, the things left unfinished or never started) glossed over or omitted. Part of the value of Hardesty’s work is the reminder that none of us is alone in that process… it’s just that most of us aren’t generally brave enough to put all of it – not just our highest highs, but our lowest lows and every point in between – out before an audience, and essentially grow up in public.

I rather like the idea of calling the act of something “putting it into practice,” ‘cause really, at the end of the day, that’s all we’ve got. Practice, and when that’s over, more practice. We continue ‘til we’ve got it right, and keep going ‘til what’s right gets that much better. There’s no destination, no perfection; only perfecting.

You can see the original thread tracing Jonathan/MindCandyMan’s evolution here, and further along his journey here. His personal website is here. And the “Online Atelier” he started to pass on what he knows is here.

No Image Stabilization? No Problem.

In this instance, the less said about proper hand holding technique the better.

At this point, nearly every camera manufacturer has incorporated something into their cameras to reduce the blur that’s caused by camera shake. It goes by an alphabet soup of abbreviations, depending on the manufacturer: VR (Nikon, “Vibration Reduction”), IS (Canon, “Image Stabilization”), OS (Sigma, “Optical Stabilizer”) and a host of others. While many manufacturers build this feature into the lens, a couple (like Pentax) build it into their bodies, so that no matter what lens you’re using, it should help.

Here’s a layman’s explanation of how it works. You’ve got small gyros* in the camera which sense camera motion; these movements are then communicated to a processor, which will essentially instruct small motors in the lens to move lens elements (usually in groups) to compensate for that motion. Some manufacturers claim up to a four-stop improvement in camera shake, which I think is great marketing hype, but too optimistic. More realistically, it’ll take care of a little bit of shake (minor instability), but not that much (if your hands are about as still as the average earthquake).

So what if neither your lenses nor your bodies have some kind of image stabilization built in? Well, this is where it helps to take a cue or two from film shooters, who generally didn’t have any of this fancy stuff either. Your first, and best, solution is a support, whether in the form of a tripod or monopod. If you’re using a timer, shutter release cable or a wireless remote, you don’t even have to worry about touching the camera at all once it’s mounted.**

There are going to be times when a support’s impractical, or you just don’t have one handy. There’s a simple rule that should eliminate most of your camera shake, and give you nice, sharp photos (provided you have a reasonably steady hand). The reciprocal of your shutter speed should be the same as the focal length you’re shooting with. So if, for instance, you’re shooting at 105mm, you should be fine with a shutter speed of 1/125. At 200mm, you’d want to shoot at a minimum of 1/200.

There’s a slight wrinkle here if you’re shooting with a cropped (non full-frame) sensor; the crop factor acts as a magnifier/multiplier, so that 105mm is actually behaving like a 155-160mm, and a 200mm will give you a magnification closer to that of a 300mm. This is a double-edged sword, since on one hand, you’re getting a bit of extra reach (think of it as a built-in teleconverter), but on the other, you’ll also have to shoot at higher shutter speeds as a result (1/320 on a 200mm lens versus 1/200).

This is all fine and dandy in daylight. After all, shooting Sunny 16 at ISO 200 will give you enough shutter speed to keep your images nice and sharp with many lenses. But if the light’s a bit iffy, your other settings will start to come more into play; you may need to tweak either your aperture or ISO (or both) in order to get a higher shutter speed.

Image stabilization’s a great option to have, but it’s not going to solve every stability issue that comes down the pike. Using your shutter speed (in conjunction with your other settings, if you’re feeling adventuresome) can be a good supplement to, or even replacement for, the image stabilization you’ve already got. Otherwise, a support – whether it’s your trusty tripod, or just leaning against a tree – will work wonders.

*Those would be gyroscopes, not tasty Greek sandwiches. That would be awkward and messy.

**I should mention that if you’ve got a stabilized lens or body and you’re using a tripod, you’ll want to shut it off. It can actually lead to your photos being less sharp if used in conjunction with a tripod, for one thing. For another, depending on how your body/lens works, it may lead to a slightly faster battery drain, since the camera’s going to be trying to stabilize the image whether it needs it or not.

Rule 14: Of Course It’s The Gear

Horses of Instruction

If you haven’t heard it a million times before, wait for it. “It’s not the gear!” I’ve said it myself, including in this space last week. But just how true is it? And really, is it ever the gear?

The common wisdom among a certain class of photographers (incidentally, often the ones whose bags are chock-a-block full of expensive stuff) is that it’s more about vision than gear. After all, Ansel Adams, who knew more about photography than most, said that the most important part of the camera was the twelve inches behind it, and he must be right, right?

Not necessarily.

If it had nothing to do with the gear, we’d all still be shooting large format cameras that used glass plates. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it… we could even bring back the camera obscura. If the gear has nothing to do with it, what use do we have for wide-angle or macro lenses, carbon fiber tripods, speedlights, reflectors, diffusers, Lightroom, full-frame sensors or Velvia?

Of course that argument falls apart if you give it more than a minute’s thought. The gear evolves sometimes for the sake of convenience; I don’t know anyone, including those who still shoot with the aforementioned large-format cameras, who wouldn’t argue that 35mm roll film isn’t a lot easier to carry and work with, for instance. Other times, it’s a case of technological advancement (Lightroom versus chemicals in a darkroom), expression (a landscape photographer’s going to get a lot farther with a 12-24mm than with an 85mm), quality (if you think an iPhone’s going to give you the same image quality and capabilities as a Mamiya, have your eyes and/or head examined, please) or necessity. These things exist for a reason, in other words, and gear – the right gear, let me emphasize – enables us to do things that we couldn’t do otherwise.

So where does the “It isn’t the gear” conventional wisdom come from, and am I suggesting we throw it out? Second question first: no. First question: experienced photographers (and some of us who aren’t so experienced) realize that the gear is just that; it’s a tool that helps you get things done. A skilled carpenter isn’t skilled because he’s got an expensive hammer; he’s skilled because of the time and effort he’s put into his craft. Whether his hammer was forged by Vulcan or cost $12.99 at Sears, he knows it’s just a tool. He’ll be the first to tell you that he’s got a belt sander ‘cause there are some things you just can’t do with a hammer. It’s just as likely he’d tell you that the belt sander isn’t what’s making him a good carpenter.

What’s that got to do with you? Take the same approach to your photography (mentally, at least) that you would to anything else you do. Get the right tool for the job, but realize that the tools are a supplement to, and not a substitute for, experience and vision. If you’ve got a D3X because you need it for low light, great; but if you bought a D3X because it’s what the pros use, and after all, they make such lovely photos, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Remember, the camera can’t make the photo without you. The right gear makes it much, much easier to realize your vision, but without the vision, the gear (however good or bad it may be) is immaterial.

Photo News Roundup, 9/24/11

Such a headache…

This week’s photo news. As usual, the links go to the original sources’ full articles.

Adobe announces Photoshop Elements 10, just in time for the program’s tenth anniversary. Elements 10 adds Guided Edits, which take you through several photo effects one step at a time. Adobe also states the software will have enhanced photo organization, and integration with Facebook… which, at the rate Facebook has been changing lately, will render that particular option obsolete as soon as the software comes out of the box.  (Adorama)

Two interesting pieces recently in the British Journal of Photography about the iPad and photography. One concerns Mack Books’ Michael Mack, who’s skipping the bookshelf in favor of the App Store for high-end photography books. The other is an interview with Michael Nichols (no, the other one) about his decision to trade his website for an iPad app.

Photojournalist Sethu Zeya gets ten years tacked to his eight year sentence for “damag[ing] tranquillity and unity in the government” in Yangon, Myanmar (that’s Rangoon, Burma, for those of you with older atlases). His crime? Taking photos in the aftermath of a grenade attack. (DigitalRev)

The upcoming high-end Panasonic will likely be called the GFX1 and not GX1, as previously reported. Some specs starting to leak; this is apparently targeted at the same segment as Fuji’s X-100 and the Sony NEX-7. (EOSHD)

Leica press release: That memory card issue some of you were having? We can’t figure it out either. We’ll get back to you on that. (Leica USA, h/t LeicaRumors)

The American Folk Art Museum narrowly escapes closing, and will continue in a much smaller space in Lincoln Center. Not quite photography news, but it’s no less welcome for that, since the AFAM has been stubbornly committed to preserving and promoting folk and outsider art. Its closing would’ve left a noticeable void in the New York art scene. (New York Times)

With the announcement of the J1 and V1 compact system cameras, Nikon belatedly enters the mirrorless camera fray. Four new lenses, plus accessories, have also been announced. (Nikon USA)

NikonRumors reports that there will be one more announcement from Nikon in mid-October.

Not long after buying Pentax for the equivalent of 25,000 Skee Ball tickets and a handful of bellybutton lint, Ricoh may be producing a new, Pentax-developed, mirrorless camera. No word yet on which company’s name will grace the nameplate, but it might be an early clue about whether Ricoh intends to re-badge Pentax gear under the Ricoh name, much as Sony did shortly after buying Minolta. Canon won’t be the only ones making a big announcement on November 3. High-end video camera maker RED has an event slated for that day as well (to announce the RED Scarlet), and has already bragged that they’ll be stealing Canon’s thunder. (PhotoRumors)

Y’know the Canon announcement that was being talked about last week (including here)? Did you hear anything? Me either. The announcement for November 3, however, is a definite, even if nobody seems to have a clue yet what’s being announced.

That’s all the news that’s fit to print (for now).

More Fun With Photography

Paparazzi (by kind permission of Colleen Fletcher)

Last week, I posted a handful of photography sites that are always good for a laugh. It got me thinking, though. It’s easy enough to laugh at someone’s mistakes, but really, when’s the last time you laughed at your own photography? And for that matter, when’s the last time you allowed yourself to be silly behind the camera? I’m not talking about the times you’ve made faces at your kids to get them to laugh or smile; I mean, when’s the last time you really let yourself go for your own photos?

I bring this up because I think a lot of us get into a frame of mind that says, “Photography is Art. I’m serious about my Art, and my photography.” And at that point, we forget to just get over ourselves and have fun. Now, I’ll admit that I’m slightly biased when it comes to the intersection of humor and creativity. Maybe it’s a personality quirk, or maybe just some kind of genetic predisposition, but I have a hard time being too serious for too long. As a result, some of my photography circles back to humor, and I’m also drawn to photographers whose sense of humor informs their work. As you’ll see in the examples that follow, you can still make some seriously good photos from a lighthearted place.

Let's go find some rebel scum! (by kind permission of Christian Cantrell)

Consider Colleen Fletcher of What started as a way of decorating the bathroom became something close to an obsession. She now has ducks for every occasion, holiday, and even location. Her ducks have seen Vegas, Jersey, and Europe, and have been photographed with sailors and celebrities alike. Christian Cantrell’s Microkosmic would be a favorite even if I weren’t already obsessed with both Legos and photography.

Jedi Chipmunk (by kind permission of Chris McVeigh)

And some photographers have turned funny into serious business. Brian McCarty (McCarty Photoworks) has combined a love of art toys with some serious composition and lighting skills and parlayed it into a client list that includes the likes of MTV, Rockstar Games, Cartoon Network and Southwest Airlines. Chris McVeigh’s unique vision (a vision that frequently includes Lego, Star Wars figures and a couple of semi-professional chipmunks) has led to gigs with Gizmodo and MacWorld.

It doesn’t stop there, of course. You don’t even need to be that funny that often, though a bit of humor in the right place goes a long way. “Straight” photographers have also found a dash of humor to be one of the most potent tools in their kit. Philippe Halsman’s collaboration with Salvador Dali, Dali Atomicus, comes to mind, as does much of David LaChapelle’s oft-imitated work. In other words, there’s a time-honored place for this. The photography police aren’t going to confiscate your equipment because you weren’t sufficiently intense, I promise (though your local police department may be a different story).

Untitled (by kind permission of Brian McCarty)

Let’s go out on a limb for a moment, and assume that if you’re reading this, you take your photography pretty seriously. You’re willing to take the time to learn your gear, technique, and anything else you have to get the hang of, in order to get better photos, and you’re aware that this isn’t a day trip you’ve embarked upon, but rather something that’s likely to be a lifelong journey. So far, so good. But if you’re taking yourself, and not your craft, seriously  (because really, it’s more about you than your “art” at that point), that verges on fatal. It’s bad enough that your photos won’t be much fun; it’s much worse that you become dull at that point. Besides, as Robert Benchley once astutely pointed out, if you don’t put humor in the right places, you risk people laughing at the wrong times, or for the wrong reasons. You don’t want that, do you? Lighten up!

Postscript: A heartfelt “Thank you” to each of the photographers whose work you see here.

Review: Tao of Photography, by Philippe Gross and S.I. Shapiro

Tao of Photography, by Philippe Gross and S.I. Shapiro

A couple of weeks ago, I ran a review of Wayne Rowe’s Zen and the Magic of Photography in this space, and noted with disappointment that the book didn’t go as deep on the philosophy as I would’ve hoped. With Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing, by Philippe Gross and S. I. Shapiro (Ten Speed Press), I think I’ve found the book that I had hoped Rowe’s book would have been. While it’s enlivened in parts by the authors’ (mostly Mr. Gross’s) personal experience and philosophy, the book is mainly devoted to a way of seeing, and photographing, that’s heavily informed by the Tao.

Insights abound here. Some, as I’ve mentioned, come from the authors themselves. However,  these are smaller threads woven into a rich, if simple, tapestry that consists of quotations and photos by such past masters as Arbus, Doisneau, Cartier-Bresson and Winogrand (to name only a few), and a wealth of material from the Chuang-tzu¹, one of the core Taoist texts.

Trying to explain the Tao is a bit like explaining chess; the rules aren’t difficult, but mastery can take a lifetime. The authors do a fine job of explaining the core concepts; rather than simply summarizing, I’d rather give you an example from the Tao itself:

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

These aren’t dualities in the sense we’re used to, a series of diametrically opposed options; rather, each are halves of a whole. The goal, therefore, is to harmonize those halves in order to see, and live, more clearly. Throughout this section (and the ones that follow), quotations and photos illustrate the core concepts.

Having put forth an explanation of the Tao in the book’s first section, Gross and Shapiro use the second section to explore what this means for how we see, and in turn photograph, the world around us. As the passage quoted above suggests, some part of this involves letting go of our distinctions between beauty and ugliness, letting go of expectation, and surrendering our stubborn tendency toward control. To see the world as it is, in other words, you need to begin by allowing it to be as it is.³ The book’s third part then proceeds to list the barriers to that kind of vision, and ways to address them.

The remainder of the book is given over to ways of putting the ideas into action. There aren’t may exercises here (aside from a couple cribbed from Bryan Peterson), and the section on teaching Taoist photography tries to argue both for and against, but comes off a bit slippery in the end, since (as the authors note) the Tao that can be taught is not the true Tao. There’s the added complication, of course, that teaching generally involves setting goals or benchmarks, which tends to fly in the face of the idea of Wu Wei (variously translated as “action without intention” or “action without action”), a central tenet of the Tao. As with everything else relating to the Tao, the trick seems to be finding flow and balance: learn from others, but benefit also from your own experience; “exercise” and experiment, but do it for its own sake rather than meeting a clearly-defined metric.

If all of this sounds more like a manual for living than for photography, that probably isn’t coincidental. Neither the book, nor the Tao itself, would draw a distinction between photographic vision and everyday seeing any more than they would draw a distinction between photography and life itself. It’s all part of the Way, and to separate either from the other, the authors seem to suggest, serves only to diminish both.

¹Available online at

²Cited from, which houses a full translation of the Tao Te Ching.

 ³This is, admittedly, an over-simplified explanation; I’d strongly suggest the book, and the links above, to begin to get a better grasp on the subject, as well as a better explanation than I’ve managed here.

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Nikon 1: Two Bodies + Four Lenses + Accessories = One Confused Product

The Nikon V1 (image courtesy of

After what seems like years’ worth of indecision and speculation, Nikon finally got around to releasing its mirrorless “1” series of cameras. This makes them the second-to-last entrant into the mirrorless interchangeable lens compact segment, having been beaten there by Olympus, Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, Ricoh, and Pentax; Canon remains the last stubborn holdout.*

The line consists of the J1 and V1 cameras, both of which have utilitarian designs (very basic, right down to the lack of even a rudimentary grip) differentiated mostly by the V1’s EVF (electronic viewfinder). Both cameras have the same hybrid focusing system that switches between phase and contrast detect autofocus depending on the shooting situation, the same 3″ LCD, and the same 10 megapixel sensor. The four lenses announced with the camera are the 10mm f/2.8, 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6, 30-110mm f/3.8-f/5, and 10-100mm f/4.5-5.5 (each with a 2.7x crop factor).

Nikon promises improved video performance, and at least on paper, the 1 series outperforms the different Dx-Dxxxx cameras currently available. The CX-format CMOS sensor captures Full HD movies at 1080p/30fps, but switches to 1080i for a frame rate of 60fps; no word yet on resolution at the higher available speeds of 400 and 1200fps. Given Nikon’s inexperience with video (at least vis-a-vis competitors like Canon and Sony), the results — as with their higher-end cameras — should be acceptable, but far from the revolutionary leap the company has touted.

Why, then, is this product a bit of a puzzlement? The sensor is smaller than those used on most other ILC’s — smaller than the Micro 4/3 chips used by Olympus and Pentax, smaller than the APS-C used not only in entry-level and prosumer SLRs but also in Sony’s NEX series, smaller than Samsung’s NX sensor. It’s bigger than the sensors found in your typical point-and-shoot, but really, that isn’t saying much. And since sensor size is directly related to pixel pitch (10mp on this sensor is 10 million much smaller pixels than you’ll find on, say, your typical Canon EOS), you’re looking at poorer depth of field, and low light performance that’s going to have to rely very heavily on noise reduction algorithms to get decent results. It’s telling that the sample low-light images taken with this camera weren’t taken in very low-light situations (it was dark out, but the subjects were in areas that were reasonably well lit), and even at that there’s a just-noticeable loss of image quality.

Then there’s the cost factor. The V1 kit (with 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6) is slated to retail at $899, with the J1 scheduled to sell for $649. That puts the former in the same ballpark — pricewise, anyway — as a D5100, and the latter at about the same price as the D3100… both with larger sensors that will afford better low-light performance and DOF, and both with the ability to use most Nikon F-mount lenses without an adapter. Granted, for some people size might be an issue; for some of them, however, a system with a proven track record (and more lens options) may seem a more attractive option. Casual shooters — who would appear to be this camera’s target market — may find it just enough of a step up from their camera phones or point-and-shoots, while those accustomed to the image quality from even a low-end SLR may well be disappointed (and from the talk on the web, a good many of them already are).

Specs and full press release (courtesy of Nikon USA) here.

Sample images from Nikon Europe’s Flickr page here.

*You could also arguably lump Fuji and Leica in with Canon. However,  rangefinders — already compact, mirrorless cameras — are Leica’s mainstay, so you could argue that they were there before everyone else; all that’s missing is the EVF. Fuji, in the meantime, hasn’t produced a credible “mirrored” (SLR) camera since the Nikon-mount S series was allowed to fade away, so in a sense, they get a pass. My money’s still on them making it to market with some kind of compact system camera before Canon does.

Beyond Photography: Claude Monet, Meet Walker Evans

Claude Monet: Rouen Cathedral, Full Sunlight (1894; public domain)

I remember sitting through a recital and lecture once by pianist Balint Vazsonyi.  The pianist’s commentary on the pieces, and on music in general, was a lively counterpoint to the music he played. I couldn’t tell you a single tune he played that night, but one thing that he said has always stuck with me. Musicians and others, he remarked, use their art as a means to solve problems, their works being scratch-pads of sorts on which dilemmas both artistic and personal are ironed out.

One thing that’s helpful about working in series (among many others) is that it’s a good way of ironing out problems. Something that only affords you one chance at getting the shot can be rewarding if you get it, but frustrating if you don’t, since it can be a long time before a similar opportunity presents itself. When you have the chance to revisit something, however, you have the chance to portray it from different angles, and to literally see it in a different light. Many artists have done some of their best work in serial form, and two of the best exemplars I can think of are impressionist painter Claude Monet (1840-1926) and photographer Walker Evans (1903-1975).

Monet didn’t quite invent Impressionism, but his 1872 painting Impression, Soleil Levant (Impression, Sunrise) was its namesake, and he was one of its most visible practitioners. Many of his best-known works – the Water Lilies, the Rouen Cathedral, Poplars, and Weeping Willows – come from works that were painted in series. The Rouen Cathedral series set out to address how light impacted color and perception. It was also a change in that it was a departure from the landscape painting that had characterized his work up to that point, though it wasn’t as much of a departure as it might at first seem; the seasonal changes of a landscape, he would come to learn, could be reflected in something as seemingly immutable as a stone building.

Working with a single subject over a period of time can be a challenge for even the best painter. Monet despaired that he’d ever get the cathedral’s ever-changing shadows and light quite right, writing at one point, ‘Things don’t advance very steadily, primarily because each day I discover something I hadn’t seen the day before… In the end, I am trying to do the impossible.’ The painter’s singular disadvantage is that the light on the subject can sometimes change during a single sitting at a rate, and in ways, the brush can’t quite keep pace with. When your medium works in fractions of a second, however, you’re at a distinct advantage. You can wait for that perfect moment when light, color, shadow and geometry all perfectly intersect, and capture it before it vanishes.

Political Poster (Walker Evans/FSA; public domain)

With that said, working in series doesn’t necessarily mean having to revisit the same place or object repeatedly. It can be as simple as finding a theme, and using that theme or type of image as a unifying thread for a series of works. While he wasn’t known for anything related to flowers or cathedrals, Walker Evans shared a similar serialist spirit with Monet. As was the case with the painter, many of the photographer’s most loved shots came from series of photos, some shot on the New York subway, others taken of signs all over the United States. The subway shots mostly had the same backdrop (subway cars) and lighting (you don’t get much variety in that respect), but the subjects on even a short ride were always changing, providing continuous opportunities for new visuals. The sign photos, meantime, ranged from the relatively durable (neon signs, or signs painted on buildings) to the ephemeral, like the already-tattered campaign poster pictured here. The works, many done for the FSA in the mid- to late-1930’s, are the perfect complement to Evans’ depictions of the rural families hardest hit by the Great Depression; whether taken individually or as a series, they’re uniquely evocative of their time and place.

If we examine even a few of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral paintings, or Evans’ sign photographs, the advantages of working in sequence become clear; it’s above all things an opportunity to see the changes wrought in a subject by time and the seasons, or a chance to tell a story even with the most mundane places and objects. If you’re starting out, assigning yourself a series to work on can also be a way to hone your skills while simultaneously finding your voice.

Links and Resources:
A short piece on Evans’ Subway photos
A page on the Library of Congress website on Evans’ FSA work, highlighting a series shot in New York
A comprehensive site on Claude Monet’s life and work