Reviews: Short Takes

The FishBomb

I’ve come across some useful things in the time since I started this site, and it seems rather silly to give them their own reviews, because sometimes something either does what it’s supposed to or doesn’t, and there’s not a heck of a lot more you can say about it after that. So I thought I’d do a roundup of small items that can be useful to have in your kit.

We’ll start with the FishBomb Lens Filter and Accessory Case. It’s as ingenious as it is simple. It’s a smallish neoprene pouch with pockets on either side that close with velcro closures. There’s a loop at the top, so you can slip the bottom part of the case through the loop in order to secure it to a belt, camera strap, or camera bag (if your bag has attachment points for lens holsters and other doodads). It’s not extremely high-capacity, but it fits two 67mm filters comfortably. I could probably fit a second filter on the side that has my IR filter on it, but fitting another filter alongside my polarizer would be a bit more snug than I’d like. It’s inexpensive, and takes up a lot less room in my camera bag than all those plastic cases the filters originally came in.* I chose it over other filter wallets that I saw from Tiffen, Opteka, et. al., because I wasn’t impressed with the construction, nor was I happy with the space they took up. As it turned out, I was happy with my choice.

Next up is the Tamrac S.A.S. MXS536801 Memory and Battery Management Wallet. As with most things Tamrac (I also own one of their monopods), the materials and design are competent, but no-frills (and the price generally reflects that). This can hold AA or AAA batteries, memory cards, a spare SLR battery, CF cards, or some combination of the above. I’d originally picked it up to hold memory cards, and then ended up with a camera bag that had memory card storage built (or, more accurately, sewn) in; however, I’ve hung on to it up ’til now because at times I want to travel ultra-light, it’s handy for my backup battery and cards, and I can see where it’d also come in handy if you’re using a speedlight. As an added bonus, there are small fabric tabs that fold out over each of the four internal pockets. This doesn’t seem like much of a big deal ’til you’re carrying multiples of something and want to figure out which of those somethings you’ve used/filled and which still have a charge, or space on them.

Finally, we come to the Promaster Xtrapower Traveler. Here’s the thing with buying used equipment: if you buy a used piece (like my wife did with her SLR), sometimes you get lucky and the person who sold it back to the camera shop also thought to bring back all the little bits and pieces that came boxed with the camera. Sometimes not; the charger for my wife’s battery wasn’t in there. The shop was kind enough to throw this in (have I mentioned lately? Buy local!), and it turned out to be a lot better than I expected; not only does it handle the EN-EL3 from the D60, it also handles the EN-EL15 from the D7000. Better still? There’s a USB power “out” jack, so if your cell phone, MP3 player, e-reader or other gadgets can charge through USB, you can bring one charger (with the appropriate cords, of course) rather than a pile of chargers. It’s a minor thing, but when space is at a premium, it’s a bigger help than it seems on paper.

*With that said, before you throw out the plastic cases, make sure you scavenge the little foam discs that often come in them to protect the filters; they come in handy if you want to double up filters in a Fishbomb or any other filter wallet.

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Charity Profile: Help-Portrait



Help-Portrait was founded in 2008 by photographer Jeremy Cowart. In just a few short years, the organization’s presence has ballooned; what started out as a small handful of participants now involves groups and individuals from all points on the map, including the United States, the UK, Brazil, and many other places. Their mission, as they describe it:

In December, photographers around the world will be grabbing their cameras, finding people in need and taking their picture. When the prints are ready, the photographs get delivered.

Yep. It really is that easy.

And by the way, we don’t want to see your photos. This is about GIVING the pictures, not taking them. These portraits are not for your portfolio, website, or for sale. Money isn’t involved here. This holiday season, you have the chance to give a family something they may have never had before—a portrait together.

As with any good mission statement, the above can be condensed to a handful of no-nonsense bullet points:
1. Find someone in need
2. Take their portrait
3. Print their portrait
4. Deliver their portrait

Predictably enough, some photographers have griped about all of this (usually they’re the same ones who spend more time on discussion forums bitching over their manufacturer of choice not updating their favorite camera yet, so they’re jumping ship to (insert name of other manufacturer), wondering whether the time, money, skills and photos could be put to better use. There’s a video at the end of this post that explains the organization and their mission pretty well, but in the meantime, let me say this: if someone’s living in poverty, or just barely making it, one of the last things they’re going to spend money on is having photos done. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not really a vital need. I’ll grant that. But the service provided here — and simultaneously, some part of its genius — is that it gives families and individuals the opportunity to get their portrait done professionally when they wouldn’t otherwise have the chance. Since family portraits are a big thing for some of us, it becomes easy to see why a simple click of the shutter can give someone not just a photo, but also a reminder that they count.

Notice that there’s nothing here that states you have to be a professional, though plenty of professional photographers do donate their time and services. You don’t even have to be a photographer to get involved. Each site typically requires not only photographers, but also people to help with lighting, makeup, general tasks and errands, and people whose job is primarily to look after the needs of those photographed during the shoot. In short: not a pro? No problem. Not even a photographer? They’ll likely find a spot for you, as well.

You can find Help-Portrait in a few places on the web. You can, for instance, follow them on Facebook (your local chapter may also have a presence there), or on Twitter. The real goldmine of information and resources, however, is the organization’s main site, From there, you can find information on the 2011 event (which takes place less than a month from now), read their Mission Statement, a robust Community section,  a blog, and — perhaps most importantly, information on getting started.

Postscript: Here’s a video posted by Help-Portrait that explains, in their own words, what they’re doing:

The Habit of Seeing: Outside the Frame


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.

Rule 16: No Manifestos!

Sometimes a bug is just a bug.

A little while back, I thought about entering a photo contest, but then thought better of it. I’d never heard of the people running it, the terms were disagreeable, and there was a high fee for entering, which is a priori ridiculous, because if you’re reputable, you’ve already got sponsors to front the money for prizes and that sort of thing.

Not too long after, I went back to the site and saw the winning entry. Immediately, my brain hurt, which tends to happen when I’m confronted by things that make absolutely no sense, and this… Well, listen. There was a writeup of the photographer, their motivation, what they and their photos were about. Those things aren’t somehow bad in and of themselves. If I like someone’s work, after all, I generally want to know more about them. What got them to that point? Who and what influenced them, and what might I learn from them? And what additional context might all of this provide for their great work?

These photos were something else again. Freed of the text, they fell flat. I felt nothing looking at them, and didn’t even get anything out of them on the intellectual level that you’d get from something you understand, and even appreciate, but don’t necessarily like. They had no substance; visually speaking, it was all empty calories, kinda like eating vegetable shortening from the can with a spoon.

I ought not to need an explanation, dissertation or manifesto telling me why the photo works, what I should think of it, or how I should feel about it. If your photo relies on any of those things for its impact, you have failed. For example, consider some of Cindy Sherman or Diane Arbus’s work.* As photographers, they’re as talented as they are polarizing. Neither of them is my cup of tea, but you can tell at a glance what they’re on about, and in some cases their work has an almost visceral impact. Both have also written very perceptively about their art – the what, how and why of what they do – but you could skip the writings and still understand the work.

What this means for us, rather simply, is that it helps to know what you’re doing, and to be able to communicate that clearly in your images. There’s always a place for ambiguity; I’d argue that for some works, it’s the key to their longevity and appeal, with the Mona Lisa being just one of a multitude of examples. However, you ought not to be ambiguous to yourself. If you’re not sure of the how or why of your work, what you intended to say, or at least some of the possible meanings you’d like someone to take away from it, you can’t expect it to be readily apparent to someone else. Consider your audience, their knowledge, frames of reference, and ways of seeing, and then if you find yourself having to explain your work, whether it’s to people who know you, or that you feel really should understand what you’re getting at, then it might be time to reconsider your approach.

*Both sites have images that are NSFW, just so’s you know.

Photo News Roundup, 10/08/11

Home Sweet Home

Leading with the more serious stuff this week. Links go to sources’ sites, and original articles.

Photojojo founder Amit Gupta, who recently announced that he has leukemia, needs a bone marrow donor. Details here. (h/t PetaPixel)

Collector of jazz photos and ephemera Frank Driggs passed on September 25. You may not know the name, but if you’ve seen Ken Burns’ “Jazz,” you’ve seen Driggs’s photos; that was but one of many documentaries, albums, and other venues in which photos from his collection figured prominently. Mr. Driggs was something of a polymath, producing records (like the classic “Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers”) and writing books like Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop — A History, in between amassing a staggering collection of photos and albums. (New York Times)

Robert Whitaker, who used his unfettered access to the Beatles to capture some of the best-known images of the band, died on September 20. In addition to his Beatles photos, Whitaker photographed more weighty subject matter in Viet Nam and Bangladesh, as well as pictures of Dali, fashion, and pop music subjects. (The Guardian)

And, as practically everyone knows by now, Steve Jobs finally succumbed to pancreatic cancer on Wednesday. Whether you love or hate the company, Jobs was one of the most compelling businessmen in the last half century, as well as being the rarest of all birds in recent times: someone who became famous for doing something. His second tenure at Apple took the company from underdog to powerhouse; ironically, and seemingly overnight, Apple went from “the little company that could” to effectively being “the Man.” Apple products have changed how we interact, consume, and now — finally, belatedly — how we create, as well. Effusive praise for Jobs has poured in from all quarters, while Apple, in the meantime, is already starting to feel the aftershocks; their announcement of the iPhone 4s was roundly panned by the people who routinely buy everything with an Apple logo, and the company’s new CEO, Tim Cook, lacking the panache that practically elevated Jobs from cult- to cult leader-status, has fared little better. (Washington Post)

On to the photography stuff:

JVC announces an NEX-looking camera that shoots stills and video, with a ridiculous 60-shot burst capability for stills. Sigma announces a refresh of its 18-200, retooled to (hopefully) get rid of fringing and chromatic aberration. Two firsts for Adobe: 1: They’re rolling out a touchscreen version of Photoshop — for Droid, before Apple. 2. It’s affordable. Kodak stock downgraded to Junk status. (Adorama)

A smattering of news from CanonRumors, including specs ahead of the November 3 announcement, and speculation that Canon may respond to Nikon’s rumored 36MP D800 with… an 18MP camera. While Canon fanboys may threaten to jump ship, this would actually be a smart move on Canon’s part…

Nikon price increases in the offing. Soon. Like, a week from today soon. If you had your peepers on Nikon gear, it may soon cost you more. Also, if you click here and here, you’ll find that specs for the upcoming D800 (the D700 replacement, which may be announced before the year’s out, judging by the accumulation of leaks) are starting to firm up. (Nikon Rumors)

The Rotor, designed by Charlie Nghiem, is one of those “why didn’t I think of that” innovations that hopefully will make it to market one of these days; it replaces the usual profusion of knobs and buttons with a series of rotary dials, and seems like it’d be a boon to anybody who’s ever wished for more intuitive controls. In other news, Ricoh is letting Pentax keep its name. (PetaPixel)

Phonar, an open photography seminar, kicks off on October 12. Learn more here.

PhotoRumors reports that the street price in the US for the Fuji X10 will be $599.95. The same article also links to test images, which are promising. In unrelated news, the Lytro light field camera has entered production.

NYPD officer Mark DeSimone loses his shit on a civilian photographer for photographing in the vicinity of the 9/11 memorial, threatening her first with arrest, then with “problems” if she or her friends returned to the area. Hopefully, DeSimone — who lost a number of his colleagues in the 9/11 attacks — gets the help he obviously needs. (Pixiq)

Fuji announces the XS-1, a 26x zoom bridge camera built around the same sensor found in the upcoming X10. Around the time the XS-1 hits the streets (early ’12), Fuji has hinted they’ll be announcing a mirrorless interchangeable system (likely at CES 2012). No leaks yet on any of the latter camera’s specs, but word on Twitter (from The Fuji Guys) is that it will have a proprietary mount. (Pocket-lint)

Sony delays the release of the A65, and hints that a new full-frame camera is due in early 2012 (no surprise there, since Sony fabs sensors for Nikon, and their D800 is also on the horizon). The rumors have some credence, since the full-frame A900 has been discontinued. (Sony Alpha Rumors)

 Not Necessarily the News: EOSHD has a timely and thought-provoking editorial on the present and future of imaging technology, wherein they argue that targeting consumers is cutting the more creative among us — that is to say, serious photographers, amateur and professional alike — out of the picture.

Color Versus Black and White


Here, not only the composition, but also the color, is part of the story.

Color in photography has been with us practically since the earliest days of the medium, as has the debate over whether one’s photos should be in black-and-white or color. Early on, it wasn’t a very difficult question, since color in the early days usually meant the hand-coloring of a monochrome print. When color processes were first introduced in the latter half of the 19th century, their expense and poor color rendition still left monochrome at a distinct advantage. It wasn’t until the middle of the last century that color fidelity and pricing improved enough to make color a viable mode of photographic expression, rekindling the debate in earnest.

Along with considerations about the exposure triangle (shutter speed, aperture and ISO) and composition, from time to time we all have to make the color vs. black and white decision. Here are a few things to bear in mind when making that decision for your own work.

First, let’s consider whether you should shoot in color or black and white. If you’re shooting in digital, this one’s a no-brainer. Always shoot in color.* The reason for this is that you can always convert a color image to black and white. If you’ve shot in black and white, on the other hand, it’s possible to convert to color, but not with the same degree of fidelity you’d have had if you had shot it that way in the first place. Shooting with film is a horse of a different… well, you get the idea. Since you can’t generally just change film on the fly (though some of the more advanced film cameras will allow this, most don’t), you’ll have to decide in advance which to shoot.

Color photography works best when the color itself is one of your stronger compositional elements, or tells a vital part of your story. Take autumn leaves, for instance. That blaze of color is many a photographer’s weakness (mine included), and your typical autumn scene, at least if the foliage is front and center, doesn’t have quite the same feel to it. Color also influences mood, or can give us visual cues that might otherwise be lost in a black-and-white image.

Here, it's all about line, shape, and texture.

Black and white also has its uses. If you’re photographing something that’s aged (like a building, or an old object), B&W tends to emphasize the aging (since many people associate it with older photos). One of its best uses is when the color is a distraction. Sometimes you’ve got something in the frame that you can’t crop out without ruining the overall look, but that same something, because of its coloration, draws attention to itself. Other times, it’s good when you want the lines or texture of something to tell your story.

These are, of course, personal choices. Some photographers prefer one style or the other nearly exclusively, while others take the decision on a case-by-case basis, letting the photo’s contents and the story they’re trying to tell dictate whether or not the image should be in color. Black and white is no longer strictly the province of “art” photographers, although for some people — photographers and viewers alike — it can be a kind of shorthand to signal artistic intent.** Conversely, color is no longer only the stuff of vacation snapshots. The debate will likely always be with us, but between you and I, it’s really nothing worth worrying over. It’s just another option, another tool; treat it as such. If it’s the right tool for the job, use it. If the color is a big part of what makes the shot, use it. If it looks better in black and white, use that instead. In either case, start with your composition, and let your eyes and your own good judgment be your guide.

*Well, almost always. If you’re shooting using a color filter (as is commonly done for infrared photography, and to get specific effects in B&W), you’re better off shooting in black and white, unless, of course, you’re trying to give your photos a specific color cast.

Review: Stories in Stone, by Douglas Keister

Stories in Stone, by Douglas Keister

A few weeks ago, in writing about doing photography in cemeteries, I mentioned Douglas Keister’s Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography in passing. I debated elaborating upon the book itself as part of that post, but decided that this would take me a bit further off-topic than usual. It’s been nagging at me, though, so I decided to review the book on its own today.

To start with, this isn’t exactly something you’d sit down and read in one sitting. That’s not to say you couldn’t convceivably do just that (I did when I first bought it), but given that it’s more of an encyclopedic reference than a story told in narrative form, it’s not exactly bedtime reading. So if you purchase this sight unseen, at least you won’t be able to say I didn’t warn you.

The book is broken down into thematic sections. The first section provides a concise overview of funerary architecture and iconography, allowing the reader to trace the trends in, and evolution of, the design of your average memorial. The stones have become such a utilitarian affair nowadays that older markers, with their profusion of finely-wrought flora (ferns, weeping willows), fauna (lambs, lions, dogs) saints, people identified and unidentified, and a host of cherubim and angels, make the modern way of death… well, a pretty sad state by comparison. Beyond the simple vital statistics (name, dates of birth and death, a halfhearted heart or a bas-relief Jesus), a modern stone often doesn’t tell us much about the person buried beneath it. An older tombstone, on the other hand, could tell you the same facts as its modern equivalent, but also give clues about status, wealth, one’s affiliations and place in the community, and even a bit of his or her philosophy.

Wish You Were Here.

There’s also a listing of common acronyms for organizations, which comes in handy once you get past the handful, like the DAR and BPOE, that are household names. Finally, the book also contains a short bibliography if you’d like to explore further. One of the bonuses here is the photography; the author, besides writing the book, shot all his own photos, which are the perfect counterpoint to the text. There are also asides here on the grave sites of celebrities and commoners alike, often delivered with a sly sense of humor.

The title of this book doesn’t quite say it all, but it does manage to say quite a bit. There are stories to be seen in the tombstones of your local graveyard, if you’re willing to seek them out and learn how to read them. If you’re serious about cemetery photography beyond just image-making — if, in other words, you’d like to learn something from the experience, and also be able to sight-read a cemetery in much the same way you can with art or architecture — this is an indispensible tool to have. If there are, as the author suggests, stories in the stone, and you’re willing to seek them out, this is a good first step toward decoding them; a Rosetta stone for the stones, if you will.

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Beyond Photography: Stew, meet William Wegman

You could be forgiven for wondering for a minute if you’ve wandered into the wrong blog. Read through to the end and it’ll make a great deal more sense, I promise.

Last evening (around the time that I’d normally be writing today’s blog entry, which is why this one is late), I saw the singer/songwriter/Afro-Baroque musician Stew at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan. It was advertised as (and was, in fact) a night of songs from the musical Passing Strange, which Stew wrote in collaboration with Heidi Rodewald. I was curious to see how they’d manage to take music performed by a five-piece band and six-person cast at the Belasco Theater and translate it for a smaller ensemble in the more intimate confines of the Pub.

The whole thing translated remarkably well, as it turns out. This was partly because of Stew and Heidi’s talents as songwriters and arrangers, but it’s also due in no small part to an artist being willing to act as though his own back catalog is nothing sacred. The arrangements were turned inside-out, in most cases being miles away from what had been performed at the Belasco, and the show as a whole had less of a Broadway feel to it than an evening of cabaret. There were long discursive and digressive asides alongside the music (and sometimes in the middle of songs), and – just as strikingly – new lyrics to many of the songs that took them to places they hadn’t already been.

Alright, so what in the hell does this have to do with photography? I’m getting there. Give me a minute.
One of Strange’s many themes is the idea of the “Real,” the search for authenticity that nearly every artist (and probably any number of individuals who wouldn’t call themselves artists) goes through in forming and discovering their identity. “The real is a construct,” Stew sang in Passing Strange, and that’s something that’s probably worth keeping in mind, since authenticity generally comes best, and fastest, when you quit worrying about it and just be it. Sometimes this means being willing to go out on a limb with your craft, being willing to experiment; sometimes too, it means being willing to operate without a net, beyond the confines of what’s emotionally safe or comfortable. It’s easier to be true to yourself, and your muse, if you’re willing to ditch the way things have always been done, and not be worried what anyone will think as a result.

"Blue Period with Banjo," William Wegman, 1980

One photographer among many that I can think of who exemplifies that sort of approach is William Wegman. Like a certain songwriter, Wegman gets away with a lot in his work, but his fans – who, by this point, are legion – love him for it. Born in 1943, his early works consisted of conventional portraiture and video work. Acquiring his first dog, Man Ray, proved to be crucial to his work; Wegman’s Weimaraners have become synonymous with the artist.

Over the past few decades, Wegman’s work has evolved, expanding from 20×24 Polaroids to other photographic formats, and also incorporating video. His work has taken him to television (including multiple stints on Sesame Street, work for Nickelodeon, and an appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson), a residency at Phillips Academy, and exhibits worldwide, including the LA County Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Smithsonian. All the while, the subject matter – those expressive dogs and their creative collaborator behind the camera – have remained consistent, but it’s Wegman’s continual willingness to experiment that’s kept his work vital, and kept him from being a one-trick puppy pony. It’s also ensured that his work has gained quite the following, as his fans (not only those serious about art, but also those who may not give the art a second thought and just love the fact that some guy gets such amazing photos using little more than his imagination and a gaggle of dogs) have followed every permutation of the Wegman esthetic.

I didn’t hear a single complaint last night that the songs weren’t note-for-note the way they’d sounded on the stage or on the cast album; indeed, anybody who’s been a fan for any length of time would probably have walked away disappointed had that been the case. The point is that Stew and Wegman alike have carved out very individual, and idiosyncratic, voices. The fact that both have been true to their individual styles so stubbornly and for so long gives them a pretty wide berth to do what they damn well please. If you’re willing to stick your neck out and do that, your subject matter I think immediately matters a heck of a lot less; people will stick with you through all the changes because they understand where you’re coming from, and appreciate the integrity you bring to your work. So: follow your muse wherever she may lead you. Your audience will keep up.

William Wegman online
The official website of Stew and The Negro Problem
The video above is from Theater Talk, and features Stew and Heidi Rodewald performing “Work the Wound”

The Habit of Seeing


   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.

Rule 15: Strip.


What I’m referring to is simple. If you find yourself in a rut, whether it’s generally speaking, or just with a single subject/shot, there’s an easy way out. Take your photography back to basics. No pole or pasties required.

Usually when we think of composition, we’re taking into account several different things simultaneously: subject, light, texture, color, geometry, and any number of other factors. Sometimes when we’re looking at something, we can be overwhelmed (or, conversely, completely underwhelmed, wondering just what it is we should be seeing) by everything within and outside the frame. Suddenly, we’re stuck.

When this happens, one solution is to look for one simple thing that draws our eye, or to change our viewpoint altogether. In other words, rather than trying to take all of these things into account, simply choose one thing that grabs your eye, and zero in on that. Sometimes this will mean choosing different subject matter, but other times it can also mean finding new (and hopefully fresh) ways of approaching your favorite things. A few things to try:

• Texture: Flat surfaces, in some cases, can mean flat photos. Sometimes, however, getting in close enough to something that you can see it in detail can mean seeing details you would otherwise have missed, and make you realize that there’s more to your subject than was apparent at a first look. Sometimes, texture can be compelling enough to be its own subject.
• Line: How does this thing you’re photographing fit together, whether it’s a building or a body? What do its lines, and its geometry, suggest to you? Where do they lead your eyes? And how might you use them to, in turn, lead your viewer’s eye?
• Color: Like your subjects themselves, colors can provoke strong responses in people. The presence of color (or a telling absence when we’re expecting it) can give a sense of richness and depth to your photos, and sometimes pure color-based abstraction can be a fun outlet by itself.
• Light: This doesn’t only influence, and determine, your exposure. The right light can mute colors or saturate them, flatten textures or reveal them, and do all sorts of things for your dynamic range, composition, and so much else.
• Patterns: Sometimes it’s a matter of seeing more than one of something; other times, it’s finding a surprising sense of order, or a story within the arrangement of, things that otherwise would have no relation to one another. If you see patterns, what kind of story do they tell you, or what story can you use them to tell?
• Contrast: Contrast is a great way to add inflection to a photo. You know the old Gershwin tune, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”? Picture singing that in a monotone, and you’d start to wonder what all the fuss is over potatoes and potatoes. A photo with insufficient contrast can also be like that.* Conversely, effective use of contrast can be just the thing to draw attention to something in your photo (or to make that something a red herring, if you’d like something else to sneak up on the viewer and only reveal itself later).
• Subject: For many of us, this can present the biggest challenge, but also the biggest rewards if we’re willing to take the risk (and it’s a small one, let’s admit it). Photography has existed for long enough that by this point, most subjects have a visual syntax associated with them. We expect sports photos to look a certain way, or expect certain things when we see a photo of a car, building, or person. The more fluent, and comfortable, we get with that subject and the visual vocabulary that goes with it, we may paradoxically find ourselves struggling to do not only what others haven’t done already, but also to avoid repeating ourselves. A change of pace (and of subject) can be just what the doctor ordered, since we learn new bits of “grammar,” as it were, that can be imported into our usual subject matter.

Something to keep in mind is that it’s okay to “cheat” here. Each of these things has ways of seeping into the others, because in photography as with so much else, it’s all interdependent. Sometimes you can’t bring out the texture without the right lighting, for instance, or you may find that the color is precisely what’s emphasizing a sense of pattern in something. If you find that happening, flow with it rather than fighting it; those connections are a great reminder to us of how all of this stuff works, and can build mental cues that we can use going forward. If, for example, you notice the connection between light and geometry (which influences shadow, texture, and geometry), you can learn to use these things consciously. You may start out paying more attention to the light, but that can, in turn, remind you to take a closer look at what the light is doing.

This has another use as well. I think that most of us will, at one point or another, get a good feel for a subject or element that we’re “good at,” and whether we do it consciously or not, we start to specialize in that. This can lead to its own kind of rut, especially if we’re looking through our photos and seeing certain themes or stylistic elements repeated over and over again. When that happens, forcing yourself to find a new area of focus ensures that you’re taking into consideration other elements that you might be neglecting. If you’re giving color short shrift, try concentrating on texture; if your photos tend to be a bit flat dimensionally speaking, experiment with geometry or shadow. It’s good exercise for the eyes, and can break up some of the monotony for your audience as well.

*Conversely, the overuse of something, whether it’s contrast, infrared, or your favorite Photoshop effect, can be like someone affecting a fake English accent for a whole evening. It gets old fast.