Rule 46: Take the Photo Now

If you’re a frequent reader of this blog (or if you’re here for the first time and just reasonably observant), you’ll notice that there’s no photo where I’d normally put one in this post. It’s not by oversight that there’s no photo, and it isn’t as though I don’t have a bunch just laying around. I bring this up, in part, so you don’t think it was an oversight on my part.

There’s actually a photo I would’ve liked to use. It would’ve been… well, not perfect (I don’t do perfect, sometimes to my chagrin). But at least competent, and I would, I’m sure, have found some lesson that I could’ve drawn from it and shared with you. It would’ve featured some interesting patterns, colors, or textures, or some particularly comely side-lighting, or some animal or human doing something particularly funny, odd, adorable or perplexing. Or maybe it wouldn’t have been all that competent — a mess of blown highlights, or a masterpiece of underexposure, or a composition that doesn’t quite work no matter how much I try to rescue it through postprocessing — but it would, at least, have been worth something as a snapshot… something that had sentimental value to me, if nobody else, because this place, or time, or person, meant something to me.

I have — or rather, I don’t have — a lot of those photos. It’s a catalog of missed opportunities, failures and frustrations. It’s the faded and peeling sign by the muffler shop that I passed by hundreds of times, knowing I really should go back there one day with my camera, only to find that it’d been painted over the next time I went past. There’ve been skies and sunsets, street scenes and parties, events of historical importance and events so trivial that even the people involved probably don’t remember much about them now…

It’s one of the reasons that I always encourage people to have a camera. ‘Cause, hey, you just never know. Some things — some scenes, some shots, some times — you only get but one shot. Do the best you can in the short time you’ve got. You, or it, or they  may not pass this way again. Or you might, but something — a painted sign, the way the light falls just so, a fleeting expression, or even just that spark in you that told you that this was the time, this was precisely the right angle, the right photo — might have changed in some small but decisive way that makes that shot impossible the next time out.

And it’s also why I’ve taken so many pictures of you, and you, and you (the whole lot of you, some of whom may see this, others not, know who you are). Times change, we change. And maybe I didn’t always get your good side, or caught you with a goofy look on your face, or maybe that’s not the most flattering thing in your wardrobe. It’s one thing — and a silly thing, at that — to worry about missing a sign or a bird here and there. But the day will come, hopefully a lot farther off than not but probably sooner than either of us or any of us would like, that those pictures that you or I have taken may be all that one of us has left of the other, so I hope you don’t mind too much.

And if you’ve read this far, whoever you may be, I hope you don’t mind terribly either, and that you’ll take this one small bit of advice: Get the photo now. Sometimes that imperfect timing, that imperfect composition, and all those imperfect photos of all the things and people we love for all their imperfections, is the best we can hope for from this imperfect life we’ve got.

Ten DIY Photo Projects


A Charming Fixer-Upper

There comes a time in each photographer’s life when we ask ourselves why we didn’t choose a less expensive hobby. Camera bodies don’t come cheap, lenses range from expensive to “Are you kidding? I paid less for my car!,” and a lot of the accessories aren’t exactly light on your wallet, either. While most of us don’t have the skills to design and build our own lenses, there are plenty of other workarounds for expensive gear that, while they may look suitable for There, I Fixed It or another, similiar site, work as well as their pricier counterparts. With that in mind, here are a handful of DIY projects from around the web, with a disclaimer that I have not tried many of these myself, and cannot personally vouch for their reliability. If, however, you’ve got more patience and creativity than cash, you might find these are right up your alley.

1. The DIY Light Tent: Light tents sell individually, or as kits that include backdrops, lights, and other doodads. By themselves, they can easily cost $100.00 or more, so building your own can represent a significant savings over buying one that’s been mass-produced. Check out this tutorial from Digital Photography School for more information:

2. DIY Macro Extension Tubes (Onion Dip Optional): On the off chance that you wanted to try macro photography with the lenses you’ve already got, and didn’t want to shell out the money for high-end extension tubes, you can do what photographer Haje Jan Kamps did, and opt for a Pringles can instead (preferably after you’ve eaten the chips). See his process on Pixiq here:

3. DIY Time-Lapse Photography: Some cameras have an intervalometer or other doohickey built in that allows for time lapse photography; you can set the camera to photograph at set intervals, and as long as there’s enough room on your memory card (and a full charge on your battery), you can shoot some pretty cool time-lapses. I lucked out; my camera’s got said doohickey. If yours doesn’t, you can invest in something that’ll do the same thing for you (a few manufacturers build battery grips and other accessories that add the function), or you can go to Photojojo, and they’ll give you an alternative:

4. DIY PVC Manual Focus Lens: I was going to say that I’m not 100% sure why you’d do this when it’s possible to buy older lenses that’ll do many of the same things a newer, more expensive lens will do (except autofocus, and sometimes metering), only cheaper; then I remembered that Lensbaby has made a multimillion dollar industry — literally — out of charging gobs of money for stuff that’s meant to make your SLR shoot like a cheap plastic camera. If that’s the look you’re after, check out this handy tutorial from DIY Photography:

5. DIY Pinhole Camera: You know that guy in college who could make a bong out of nearly anything? Well, there are photographers who apply the same approach to their photography; they can, and will, make cameras out of anything from Altoids tins to oatmeal containers or toilet paper tubes. There are gobs of tutorials on the web for pinhole cameras, but there’s also a very good book on the subject, Pinhole Cameras: A DIY Guide* by Chris Keeney. Most of the projects require a familiarity (or the patience to familiarize yourself) with film development, but Keeney lays all of that out, as well.

6. DIY Macro Table: This was actually the impetus for the post you’re reading right now, as I’d gone into a local camera shop and found a really nice macro table for “only” $400-odd dollars. Looking at the construction — a lot of aluminum tubing, a handful of plastic joints, a sheet of plexiglass, and some strategically placed metal bits to hold everything together — it occurred to me that this is the kind of thing someone could probably knock together in a workshop. I’ve come across several options online, but I rather like this one because it uses materials that are a bit more readily available and easy to work with, even if you’re all thumbs like me. Besides, how can you not like a photographer who calls himself Grumpy John?

7. DIY Flash Diffuser: To say that I’ve lost count of the number of light modifiers I’ve seen is a bit misleading; I never quite started counting, since what I saw from Gary Fong alone made my head spin. Suffice to say, they exist in oodles, but there are at least as many options if you want to make your own. There’s a great post from photographer Chester Bullock that covers a number of them here:

8. DIY Light Reflector: Reflectors are one of the few photo accessories where you can find something that’s both cheap and effective. It’s literally possible to make a reflector or beauty dish with little more than cardboard and aluminum foil, or to make a large diffuser (for available-light shots outdoors) using K’Nex and a bedsheet. Lighting Academy has several projects here (also available in German)

9. DIY Camera Bag: It can be frustrating trying to find just the right bag — durable, looks good, fits your stuff, doesn’t let the world know you’re carrying your gear — at the right price. Sometimes you may already have, or have seen, the perfect bag, only it’s not really designed for a camera. There are workarounds that allow you to modify anything from a standard messenger bag to a backpack, purse — even a diaper bag or ammunition case, if you were so inclined — into a perfectly serviceable home for your gear. In this case, I’m including two tutorials, one from the guys at Click Whirl Photography that’s strictly quick-and-dirty ( and one from Patty at My Craft Spotlight that would appear to require sewing, glue guns, and a number of other things with which I’d probably make a terrible mess… you can find that one (actually, those; it’s a handful of ideas) here:

10. DIY Photo Effects: I’ve seen a handful of these over the years… they’re essentially ways to modify how your lens “sees” and renders what’s in front of it. One word of caution: if you’re going to do any of these, I strongly suggest slapping a cheap UV filter on your lens first, ’cause it’s quite a bit better to damage one of those than to potentially damage the lens itself. You can do a pretty respectable simulation of a haze filter by putting panty hose over the lens (secured with a hair tie). You can also get a soft focus effect by putting vaseline (or anything else that’s a bit greasy) over a UV filter (which is also, incidentally, why you should never use Puffs Plus or any other tissue that contains lotion to clean optics). It’s also possible to modify the shape of bokeh (those lovely bits and blobs of light rendered by the lens when it’s wide open), as is shown by Make:Projects here:

By way of a postscript, if you’re feeling especially adventuresome (or just want to waste the better part of an afternoon looking at some uber-cool DIY stuff), drop by DIY Photography (, which is a great resource for all sorts of do-it-yourself goodies. And if you have any DIY tips or hacks of your own, share ’em in the comments below.

*That’s an Amazon affiliate link; purchasing Keeney’s book (or pretty much anything else) through the link helps support The First 10,000. Gracias!

Beyond Photography: Marx Brothers, Meet Magnum Photos

The Marx Brothers — Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo — in 1931 (Image: Public Domain)

Chances are, only their mother called them Leonard, Arthur, Julius or Herbert. To the rest of us, they’ve always been the Marx Brothers. The brothers’ schtick had been refined by years of live work in vaudeville and on Broadway before they ever graced the silver screen, and that experience shows through in their movies’ fast-and-loose, anarchic spirit. It takes a lot of discipline to hone your timing to a point where things can look as though they might fly apart at any minute and yet be so incredibly tight; what looked so spontaneous was, in fact, scripted, repeatedly rehearsed, and — in the case of the earlier films, like The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers — worked out on stage in endless variations.

Part of the Marx Brothers’ appeal and longevity comes from the personae adopted by the three best-known brothers, based on ethnic stereotypes that were popular on stage and screen at the time (Herbert/Zeppo was the group’s straight man, a distinction he sometimes shared with Margaret Dumont until his departure). Leonard, better known as Chico,* was a wisecracking “Italian” pianist, while Adolph (later Arthur, still later Harpo, for obvious reasons) played a supposedly “Irish” type (though generally mute, in any case) and the wisecracking, guitar-playing Julius — that’s Groucho to you — was as likely to play something vaguely German or Dutch, at least until World War I era anti-German sentiment lead him to adapt something broadly Yiddish.

On the one hand, the movies are as effective as they are because the four (or later, three) cohere so well as a unit. This is especially apparent in scenes like A Night At The Opera‘s famous stateroom scene, or a particularly memorable bit from Horse Feathers that… well, watch it, and you’ll see what I mean. On the other hand, there are equally important and even influential scenes that rely on two of the brothers in tandem (Chico and Harpo’s “Tutsi Fruitsi ice cream” interlude, or Harpo and Groucho’s mirror sequence that would later be re-created on “I Love Lucy.” The brothers would also have set pieces in the films that allowed them to shine as individuals, whether they were musical numbers, or some of Groucho’s more memorable (and nonsensical) monologues.

Image from “Looking for America: Ohio” (Photo credit: Alec Soth/Magnum Photos)

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with Magnum Photos, or with photography at all. I’ll get to that part in a bit. Meantime, let’s stop to consider Magnum. Magnum Photos was founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, and had as its founding members David Seymour, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and William Vandivert.*** From the agency’s earliest days, its photographers have been a diverse lot, in terms not only of their nationalities but also their distinct photographic approaches and voices. Capa was a war photographer, Cartier-Bresson a street photographer, and subsequent members have been a mix of photojournalists, documentarians, travel photographers… well, you get the picture.

For all the differences in their respective approaches, however, there are still unifying threads to be found among the hundreds of thousands of Magnum images. There’s an innate curiosity, a unique visual sense, and a consistent commitment to quality that means that there’s a house ethic, if not a house esthetic. It’s those things that unite the work of photographers like Franck, Parr, Haas and Arnold, despite their surface dissimilarities. It’s why the Magnum name endures, and it’s also what’s made the rare collaborations among Magnum members so interesting.

The members of Magnum greatly outnumber the Marx Brothers, and I don’t think they’ve been influenced by Vaudeville (I don’t think that Elliot Erwitt is given to sporting a greasepaint mustache), but I’d still argue that there are important similarities between the two. Collective work doesn’t necessarily have to mean the members of the group submitting to some kind of “house style.”

Sometimes, whether you’re part of a photo collective, an agency, a one-off collaboration, or just (in Groucho’s memorable words) one of “four nice Jewish boys trying to be funny,” a sense of common purpose — even if it’s arrived at in a cacophony of voices — is just as important as a sense of common style. The works of these two entities, the Marxes and Magnum, are the result of what each person brings to the table as an individual. What makes it all gel is that the overriding concern isn’t that everyone should sound, or look, alike; rather, it’s a matter of respecting the process, honoring the work, and allowing each to shine so that all can shine.

As with seemingly everything else, there’s a Wikipedia entry on the Marx Brothers ( You can also find a proliferation of fan sites, such as and  (Google will help you locate plenty more). When it comes to film, there’s The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection**, which anthologizes their earlier films (from 1929’s The Cocoanuts through their 1933 masterpiece Duck Soup), and an anthology of their later work, titled The Marx Brothers Collection**, which anthologizes their work at Warner Brothers. Of the latter set, A Night at the Opera (1935) is the unquestionable highlight. Given that their work after that film fell off dramatically in terms of quality (though there’d be moments of genius in each of the later films), you could just as easily pick up “Opera” by itself in tandem with the first collection and have all the essentials. In print, meanwhile, there are a few excellent options. Glen Mitchell’s The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia** was recently reissued and is a handy reference for all things Marx. Simon Louvish’s Monkey Business** is a good biography of the brothers as a troupe, while Stefan Kanfer’s Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx** is an excellent study of the most famous Marx Brother.

When it comes to Magnum, there are literally hundreds of options. After all, we’re dealing with an agency that’s employed some of the best (and best-known) photographers in the world over the course of its history. On the web, their own site ( is the best starting point; from there, it’s relatively easy to zero in on photographers whose work you find particularly interesting. In terms of books, there are two recent standouts on the agency as a whole (you can certainly find plenty more if the mood strikes). Magnum Magnum,** by Brigitte Lardinois, is a fairly comprehensive overview of work from the agency’s entire history, while In Our Time: The World As Seen by Magnum Photographers** (William Manchester et. al.) actually picks up some time before the agency’s founding.

*Actually pronounced “Chick-o,” in case you were wondering.

***Calling HCB, Seymour and Rodger founding members gets into a bit of a gray area, since none of them were present at the initial meeting.

Your purchases through the Amazon Affiliate links in this post (marked by a double asterisk **) help support the First 10,000. Thanks!

What is Aspect Ratio?


1:1 Aspect Ratio

The ratio in which a work of art is presented has a host of artistic, practical, and — for some, anyway — even mystical considerations. As photographers, we come across ratios every day without giving them much thought. Let’s remedy that, and think about them a bit, shall we?

An aspect ratio is simply a proportion that describes the measurements of something in terms of its proportionality of length to width. So, in other words, something that measures four feet by three feet would have the same aspect ratio as something that measured 20 miles by 15 miles. In former times, some people got awfully worked up about ratios, claiming some to be not only better than others, but that one ratio in particular (1:1.6, known also as the “Golden Ratio” or “Golden Mean”) was divinely inspired. If you think those people were silly in comparison to artists today, you haven’t been on an internet discussion board lately. But I digress.

3:2 Aspect Ratio

Where were we? Ah, yes. Theory. Enough of that. Let’s get practical. Nikon and Canon sensors often use a 3:2 aspect ratio, which is roughly the same ratio as a frame of 35mm film; this holds true whether you’re using a full frame camera (i.e. the sensor is also the same size as a frame of 35mm film) or a cropped sensor, which is going to be somewhat smaller. Later digital cameras have tended to use a 4:3 aspect ratio, which is the same — coincidentally or not — as the aspect ratio used by many computer monitors and standard-def TV screens. Medium and large format cameras also frequently make use of 5:3, 5:4, and 1:1 ratios, while HD video is either shot at or scaled to a 16:9 or 16:10 ratio to fit the size of the screen on which it’s being shown. Remember, this has nothing to do with the size of the sensor, since two sensors — or two of pretty much any object — can make use of the same ratio with very different measurements.** 

16:9 Aspect Ratio

Let’s get even more practical, since this determines not only how your photos are made, but also how they’re displayed. Many computer monitors utilize the 4:3 ratio, as mentioned earlier. If we stop to think about common print sizes, 6×4 format is 3:2, 10×8 is 5:4, and 7×5 doesn’t quite fit any of the aspect ratios in common use. What that means for practical purposes is that if you’re going to print your photos, you now know the relation between your camera’s sensor and the print sizes you’re likely to be using. You also realize, if you’ve given this a second’s thought, that in a good number of cases, the printing process is going to involve some kind of trickery to match the sensor or film’s native aspect ratio to whatever it is you’re using to print. So if you’re using a 4:3 (or four thirds) camera, you’ll have to stretch (or shrink) the print to fit, put a border of some sort around the print, or crop out some part of your image so that everything stays proportional between the two media. The latter two instances are generally safer bets, since the first option generally leads to objects in your photo looking misshapen to one degree or another (you’ve probably already seen how video solves the problem of differnt aspect ratios, especially if you’ve seen something shown in letterbox format).

Screenshot from a Fuji X10 showing how different aspect ratios effect file size

Some cameras — and this is especially true of compacts — will allow you to shoot in different aspect ratios than the one for which the sensor was designed (which you’ll sometimes hear referred to as the “native” aspect ratio). The sensor’s aspect ratio might be 4:3, in other words, but the camera will still allow you to shoot in 3:2 or 16:9 formats. You’ll notice something when you’re not shooting at the camera’s native aspect ratio, however: those photos will generally have smaller file sizes than the “normal” ones (see photo at left). The reason for this is that your camera’s sensor isn’t somehow changing its proportions just because you’ve selected a different setting; it is instead telling a certain number of pixels to step out for coffee and donuts while the rest do the heavy lifting. In other words, you’re not shooting at full resolution.

Hopefully this clears up the question of what an aspect ratio is. If I haven’t been clear, let me know in the comments, and I’ll try (again) to clear the air.

*It should be noted that these ratios are expressed in what we’d think of as landscape format, so it’d be 4 wide by 3 long; if you’re looking for the proportion in portrait format, just invert the numbers.

**Put differently, some digital cameras use a 1:1 sensor that might have dimensions of 1″x1″, for a surface area of one square inch. Now, if you also happen to bake, that 9×9 pan you’re using for your brownies has a 1:1 aspect ratio too, but has a surface area of 81 square inches (while your 13×9 is an almost-but-not-quite 4:3, but if people are paying closer attention to the formatting of your brownies than their taste, I humbly suggest you find another recipe).

Postscript: Maybe you came here looking for information on cinematic aspect ratios. If that’s the case, you’ll probably find this article helpful:

Rule 45: Experiment!

Every once in a while, I’ll read over what I’ve written on this site and realize that my average post leaves out about as much as it leaves in. Sometimes, in fact, it leaves out much, much more. There are a few reasons for this, not least the fact that I’m covering something in blog form that has, often as not, been covered in a much longer article, a chapter of a book, or sustains a book all on its own.

More importantly, however, there’s the process itself. I think sometimes that it’s important to leave stuff out. For one thing, I don’t think there’s a single, objective way to shoot any given photo. Each step in the process — setting up the shot, choosing your particular combination of ISO, aperture and shutter speed, whether or not to use flash, using a filter (or not) — can be taken any number of ways, some of which will expose your photo identically, but others of which will lead to drastically different outcomes.

I could probably give photographic “recipes,” along with very specific steps to arrive at that specific photo, but what use is that? I don’t even like taking the same photo over and over again, and I’m not sure that I’m doing you or anyone else any favors by showing you how to do that one thing. When it comes to my own learning, I’ve sometimes lucked out and found exactly what I needed in a book, on a website, or at the elbow of another photographer. Sometimes, though, I’ve been just as lucky to find out just by trial and error. Lots of trial, and — God knows — plenty of error.

I can hear the question coming, if it hasn’t already. Okay, your point?

Here it is. Experiment. Lots. Experiment with subjects, trying out as many different things as you can think of. Experiment with the rules, to see how they work and what happens when you break them. Experiment with your gear, seeing if you can find its limits and yours, and whether you can push just a little bit further.

Experimenting means that your process becomes your own. It also means that what results from your process won’t be mine, won’t be your friend’s, or that guy at your camera club who won’t stop yapping about his D4 and all his 1.4 glass, and that’s okay. It’ll be something that’s uniquely yours, which, at the end of the day, is rather the point of this whole thing.

Monthly Link Dump

New Leaf

Signs of the Times: The BBC has a feature up about photographer Simon Roberts, and his work documenting the recession. Happily, Roberts does much of the talking, and both he and his camera have plenty to say. Some of the pieces discussed (like the Occupy London tent city) are familiar, but some of the others — collaging demonstrators’ signs as well as sale placards — are a different visual representation of the unrest that’s accompanied the downturn.

Bears… in… Spaaaaace! The Daily Mail reports on some British students sending stuffed critters into low Earth orbit using weather balloons. Photography is only incidental to this story, which I’m including because, well, bears, space and science — what’s not to love?

Does This Lens Make Me Look Fat? On Petapixel, John Cornicello explains why the camera adds ten pounds, with illustrations. Elsewhere on Petapixel, Michael Zhang has unearthed a 1902 book on photography mistakes (helpfully titled Why My Photographs are Bad), reminding us that in photography and in life, the more things change the more they really do stay the same.

What is This “Copyright” of Which You Speak? The Register (UK) tells of an English proposal that guts the rights of copyright holders. They do a better job of explaining it than I could, so check the article out at this link. If you don’t live in the United Kingdom, I’d still suggest taking a look, because this is an object lesson in how fragile creators’ rights to their own work tend to be.

The Closest A Cheeseburger Will Ever Get To Kate Moss (and Vice Versa) Design Taxi takes us behind the scenes of a McDonald’s “fashion” shoot, complete with fancy lighting, fluffing, and lots and lots (and lots) of retouching. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about what it says about us as a society when we treat our food like models and our models like meat…

In Which Photography Gets All “Meta” When is a photo not a photo? Wait, let’s try that again. When is your photo not “your” photo? No, that’s not it, either… Well, anyway, the Guardian has a piece on photographers repurposing Google Street View photos as art by applying a bit of cropping, a dash of context, and a pinch of processing, calling it their own, and getting some serious accolades for it. There’s plenty of precedent for this kind of thing, although the convenience with which it’s done is something new. Check out the article, and sound off in the comments below; what do you think?

Sir Ken Robinson On Creativity

After last week’s post on Daniel Boorstin, I’m hesitant to put up yet another short post with a link to someone else’s stuff. With that said, A: I don’t plan to make a habit of this, and B: I haven’t been able to get this video out of my mind since watching it last week. I hadn’t heard of Sir Ken Robinson before seeing this talk he gave at TED, and in case you hadn’t either, I’d like to remedy that, since what he has to say — about education, creativity, and where those things intersect (or, sadly, fail to) — is witty, heartfelt, and vital. Share this with a friend, an educator, and/or anyone who doesn’t quite understand why the arts and creativity matter, in or out of education.

(h/t Jon at Great Heights Performing Arts Lab)

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).

Rule 44: You Are Your Competition

We hate it when our friends become successful. — Morrisey

A bit of friendly competition can be a good thing if you’re photographing among friends. Seeing who can get the best shot out of a day’s shooting can keep everyone on their toes, and motivate you to do some of your best work.

But what happens when that spirit of collegaility and competition finds itself side-by-side with (or, worse still, replaced by) jealousy, envy, and resentment? It can be all too easy when you see someone else you know succeed at the same thing you’re trying to do to resent that success, but that’s lousy for both your craft and your reputation, since both will suffer. And I’d add, by the way, that this is something I’ve seen just as much among amateur photographers as among professionals, so whoever, and wherever, you are, this means you.

You want to know what to do about your competitors? Forget them. Forget their gallery opening, their cover shot on Popular Photography, their day rate. What have you done? Is your photography better than it was last year, last month, last week or last night? That’s all that matters. Odds are better than even that the photographer you view as you “competition” isn’t looking over her shoulder at you; she’s looking at her last shoot, and wondering what she can do to make the one that follows it better.

Don’t look over your shoulder either, or worry about nipping at someone else’s heels. Look in the mirror, and on your hard drive. What are you doing to improve your craft? What are you doing to make sure you continue to grow and evolve, and to make the kinds of photos that you can be proud to call your own regardless of what anybody else says or thinks about them? If you can’t do that, you run the risk of being that one photographer that everyone knows (and we all know, or have at least met, one of them) who begrudges others their successes, no matter how great or small they are. You probably give that person a wide berth when you see them, so don’t be that person.

Here’s what I’d suggest. If someone succeeds, celebrate them, and what they’ve done. If they’re in the mood, celebrate with them. If you’ve been a photographer for any length of time, you already know that alongside the joys that the craft brings with it, it also has its share of frustrations, whether it’s those days when you feel like you’re regressing ’cause you’ve shoot a hundred photos and don’t think you’ve got a single one worth keeping, or it’s a shortage of clients, crappy weather, equipment issues, general malaise… you and I between us could probably spend an hour coming up with a list, and some third photographer — even if they just picked up a camera for the first time yesterday — could still add another few dozen items to the list. So whoever your “competitor” is, they’ve got the same set of frustrations you do, plus a whole raft of their own you probably don’t even realize. And on top of all those things, they’ve got your sorry ass sniping at them from the sidelines.

Again: cut it out. Success isn’t measured by money alone, nor by Twitter followers, site traffic, accolades, or any other single thing. Nor, more importantly, is success somehow finite. Someone else doing well — even if they’re in the same town as you, even if their studio is cheek-by-jowl with yours — doesn’t mean that your photgraphy or your chances are somehow worse than they were before. Their success does not diminish you. Only you can do that, and I hope for your sake that you’ve got better things to do with your skills, your talent and your heart.

Beyond Photography: Meet Woody Guthrie

If you walk across my camera I will flash the world your story. — Woody Guthrie

Something a bit different than the usual “Beyond Photography” post today, in that I’m only devoting it to one person: Woody Guthrie, whose centennial is today.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born on the 14th of July, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma. What happened after that could well have been anybody’s guess, given that Woody wasn’t one to stay in one place for very long. And all along the way there was music; other people’s at first, but before long an avalanche of his own songs that chronicled what he saw day to day. For all the songs that he recorded during his career — hundreds of them, over a little more than ten years — he also left behind notes for a thousand or more songs in varying degrees of completion.

He also wasn’t above revisiting a subject or reworking a song. “Dusty Old Dust” (originally part of the Dust Bowl Ballads collection) would reappear during World War II as an affectionate send-off for the troops who were shipping out (“So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Ye”), while there’s also a pronounced similarity in the rhythm and cadence of many of his talking blues songs (listen to “Talking Sailor Blues” and “Talking Fishing Blues” back-to-back for a good example). Even his best-known song, “This Land is Your Land,” would appear with variations in its lyrics.

He also collaborated with other singers, such as Cisco Huston, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger, coming away from each with new ideas, new songs, and new ways to approach his craft (he later told Ramblin’ Jack Elliot that his playing style was essentially a carbon copy of Leadbelly’s). In their own way, those collaborations would continue long after his untimely death of Huntington’s Disease in 1967, thanks to the work of his daughter Norah and the Woody Guthrie Foundation in getting Woody’s lyrics into the hands of Wilco, the Dropkick Murphys, Billy Bragg, the Klezmatics and others.

But if there’s one thing that makes Woody’s music endure more than anything else, it would be the sheer breadth of it. For someone who said that playing anything more than two chords was showing off, it was pretty obvious that Guthrie not only had smarts to spare, but also that he’d steeped himself in the music that had come before him — quite a lot of it, from traditional ballads to blues and nascent country-and-western. But he didn’t immerse himself only in music; wherever he went — and he traveled quite a bit, criscrossing the United States and also spending time during World War II in the Merchant Marine — he also got to know the people he met, incorporating their stories into his own, and into his music. He didn’t shy away from much of anything, taking on topical material (like the Ludlow massacre, the sinking of the Ruben James, and the plight of migrant workers) alongside politics, Eastern philosophy, children’s songs, and pretty much anything else that struck his fancy.

You could say that Woody Guthrie wasn’t much of a guitarist, or that he wasn’t a great vocalist, and you might even be right. But what music has in common with photography, and the reason I find myself approaching both time and again as though they’re two sides of the same coin, is that there should be a balance, a sense of harmony if you will, between what you’re trying to say and how you say it. There’s a simplicity and honesty to Woody’s work that isn’t such a bad quality to have if you’re a photographer. And a lot of the singer’s other qualities — the sense of humor, the willingness to collaborate, and an ability to get new things out of old subjects — would probably serve you well, too. But there’s another lesson lurking in all of this as well: perhaps the single most important thing to have in your kit isn’t your lenses, your flash, batteries, memory cards, air blower, or even your camera. Pack your curiosity first and you’ll be amazed at how much better the rest of your kit — whether it’s the physical one or the metaphysical one — works as a result.

My eyes has been my camera taking pictures of the world and my songs has been my messages that I tried to scatter across the back sides and along the steps of the fire escapes and on the window sills and through the dark halls… — Woody Guthrie

POSTSCRIPT: What I’ve written here only barely scratches the surface. There’s a vast number of resources if you’re curious and would like to learn more.

On the Web: is the official website of the Woody Guthrie Foundation, and probably your single best starting point. Besides having an extensive biography, it also houses media, manuscripts, notebooks, correspondence, and more. A whole lot more. The Library of Congress website also has a long biographical essay by Mark Allan Jackson, available here: in addition to a collection of Guthrie’s correspondance here: To learn more about Huntington’s Disease or to donate to research toward a cure, visit

In Print:* Woody Guthrie penned two autobiographies that were… well, equal parts biography and shaggy dog story. There was Bound for Glory (1943; reprinted several times since, and made into a movie starring David Carradine in 1976), and the posthumously-published Seeds of Man(1976), both of which contaned a healthy amount of self-mythologizing. Subsequent biographies by Joe Klein (Woody Guthrie: A Life ), Robert Santelli (Hard Travelin’: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie ) and Ed Cray (Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie ) have had the unenviable task of separating the man from the myth, but have done quite a good job of it.

On Disc/MP3:*

But of course, beyond the thousands of words written by and about Woody Guthrie, the legacy wouldn’t be quite the same without the music. Start with The Asch Recordings, Vol. 1-4 on Smithsonian Folkways. It’s a comprehensive collection of music recorded in the mid- to late-1940’s that has the added bonus of being thematically arranged and well-annotated, with excellent sound quality. There’s also Woody at 100: Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection, which overlaps in places with the Asch set, but it has the added bonus of a disc’s worth of material that hadn’t been previously available. Finally, if you’d like something that’s shorter but still representative, the Dust Bowl Ballads (recorded in 1940) is a fantastic and cohesive set all on its own.**

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**There’s also a set of Alan Lomax recordings from 1940 which is as fascinating as it is uneven; the sound quality is iffy in places, and the performances often aren’t as tight as later versions. With that said, it’s also a great snapshot of someone working by the seat of his pants, and leaves you with a different appreciation of Guthrie’s genius than the more polished versions that would come later. It’s out of print on disc (and terribly expensive used), but still available as an MP3 download.