The Review: Little People in the City: The Street Art of Slinkachu

"Overpowered," by Slinkachu

It’s a bit of a challenge trying to pin down what, exactly, Slinkachu does. You could classify him as an installation artist, photographer, gentle provocateur, or even philosopher; each would be accurate in its own way, but even all of them, taken together, still somehow miss the whole that’s bigger than all those parts.

The method’s deceptively simple: take a miniature figurine (most of them look to be about HO scale), paint it, and then place it somewhere in the city, perhaps to be happened on by chance, and perhaps not. But then, installation art is not unlike real estate: it’s got (nearly) everything to do with location. Part of Slinkachu’s simple genius is putting his little people in very specific places to echo very specific predicaments faced by the world at large on a daily basis.

Little People in the City: The Street Art of Slinkachu documents several of the artist’s installations. The book, like the art, works on several levels, wherein lies a lot of its appeal. On the one hand, you can skim the book, as I did the first time, getting chuckles from photos that seem to have taken some visual cues from Gary Larson (filtered, at times, through a sense of melancholy that could easily have been borrowed from Edward Hopper). But there’s so much more than that.

For one thing, if it were just for the humor, the concept and the book itself would both wear pretty thin, pretty quickly. Taken as pure “surface,” it’s a pretty shallow artistic conceit. But then, on a second or third viewing, you realize there’s something else going on here. These installations, and the resultant photos, aren’t just of something, they’re also about something.

They’re also useful, for two reasons. First, it’s a much-needed reminder that it doesn’t need to be serious to be art. Humor is a vital part not just of life, but also of the creative process. Sometimes it’s useful as pure comic relief, and sometimes as a lure, or foil… something to draw you into a deeper meaning that lurks behind the laugh, or something to throw a bit of sadness or melancholy into sharper relief. Slinkachu does both here.

The second bit is the photography. There are a number of lessons you can draw from the photos, from exposure to many elements of good composition (such as paying attention to your backgrounds, or including something in the frame that gives a sense of scale to your photo).

The verdict? If you’re of a certain frame of mind (and sense of humor), this book’s worth checking out, or even owning. As to the artwork itself? I won’t belabor you with my interpretations of any of this stuff, or the feelings certain pieces did or didn’t arouse in me; that would, frankly, be the least interesting part of the whole enterprise, especially when the point is to crack open the pages and find your own experience and interpretations. Try it, and enjoy it.

Explore further: a link to Slinkachu’s main page, which in turn links to his website and blog.

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The Lightning Rod Theory of Photographic Inspiration

Wow, that’s a mouthful. Let me explain:

You hear creative types talk about inspiration all the time. Sometimes, it’s because the muse is talking, the inspiration’s flowing, and it seems as though, artistically speaking, you’re a fount of useful and interesting ideas. Other times, of course, it’s because of the dreaded “block.” You and the muse aren’t on speaking terms, and as far as ideas go, someone might as well have shut off the spigot, because what was once a torrent of stuff now seems to have slowed to a miserly drip.

And think about how we talk about inspiration. It’s the “lightbulb moment,” a “bolt from the blue,” or the “shock” of recognition when it all comes together. Very charged language (pun partly intended)  for a feeling that, when it comes, can definitely be electric.

Let’s take that electrical metaphor a step further. If we’re waiting for that lightning bolt, like Ben Franklin flying his kite in the middle of a thunderstorm, it helps to remember that lightning — both the high-voltage, knock-your-shoes-and-socks-off variety, and the inspirational kind — tends to strike the tallest thing it can find.

Of course, unless you’re fixing to be electrocuted when a thunderstorm comes, you’re likely going to get your ass indoors, or find some cover. It only makes sense. But what works when it’s raining is counterproductive if you’re looking to get inspired; laying low, not getting out there and even taking the small risks, means the odds of a good flash of inspiration are pretty dramatically decreased.

A couple of days ago, I advised you to always have your camera with you. One reason, as I stated in that piece, is that you’re simply not going to get pictures if you don’t have your camera with you to make them. There’s another, more elemental, reason as well. Photography, I’ve found, can be a lot like exercise. The longer you don’t exercise, the harder it gets to exercise. If your only exertion is vacuuming the crumbs out of your bellybutton, it’s going to get difficult after a while to drag yourself off the couch, to say nothing of running a marathon. If, on the other hand, you’re active every day, it becomes much easier to stay that way.

Similarly (yes, there was a point to that bit), if you let your camera gather dust for days, weeks, or months on end, it becomes a lot more difficult with the passage of time to get out there and get photos that don’t look like they were a chore to make. You don’t need to have an angel on your shoulder to take good photos, but if you feel dull and uninspired, don’t be surprised if your photos reflect that. If you make photography a habit, you can make inspiration a habit as well.

Here’s what it all comes down to: photographing every day (or, if you came here by accident, doing whatever else it is you do, whether it’s writing, cooking, or interpretive dance) makes it stand taller in your consciousness, and gives those lightning flashes of inspiration something to strike. The longer you do this, don’t be surprised if those lightbulb moments become much more regular, and much less unpredictable.

Taking Better Self-Portraits

"Don't" #4: Don't go cutting your ear off, either. (Image: Public Domain)

You can take self-portraits for any number of reasons. Maybe you want something to put up on your Facebook or Twitter profile, maybe you want a good shot for that online dating site, or maybe you’re just some kind of narciss—never mind. Anyway, the point is, sometimes you need a picture of yourself, and there’s nobody else around to do the job. Today, I’ll be going over some very simple do’s and don’ts for better self-portraits.

  1. No “Arm’s Length” shots. All this does is add  foreshortening and make it look as though you’ve got ridiculously long arms. Needless to say, not a good look. You’re not a knuckle-dragger!
  2. No duckface. I don’t know what triggered the duckface epidemic, but suffice to say, it doesn’t look sexy, pouty, or attractive in any way. It just makes you look as though you’ve been lunching on lemons.
  3. No mirrors. Besides being a cliché, this is something that’s really better left to disgraced Congressmen.

Okay, so that’s the don’ts. Now the dos:

  1. Find a support. If you’re using an automatic compact (a.k.a. “point and shoot”), you can find a collapsible, highly portable tripod for about ten bucks. It’s not quite sturdy enough for an SLR, but it does fine for smaller cameras. In the absence of a tripod, set the camera on something else that’s flat, level, and not prone to falling over.
  2. Compose your shot. Pay attention to what’s going to be in the frame with you, keeping the background free of distractions. Set the camera either at eye level, or slightly above, since shooting from a low angle will give you multiple chins (whereas shooting from a high angle is handy if you’re trying to camouflage chins). Putting a mirror behind your camera’s LCD display can also give you a good idea of what everything’s going to look like in the frame before the photo’s made (hat tip: Photodoto).
  3. Use the camera’s timer function, set to a long interval (ten seconds or more) so you have time to get into position without looking rushed, or so the camera’s not taking multiple exposures of bits and pieces of you. If, on the other hand, the camera has a remote shutter release or cable release, use that for a greater degree of control.
  4. Focus. Try one shot from behind the camera using whatever method you’ll be using from step three to see how your camera focuses. If it needs to be done manually, put something where you’ll be sitting/standing as a reference; if the camera will autofocus, make sure the face recognition feature’s turned on (if your camera has one; most do these days) and let ‘er rip.
  5. If you’re shooting with a camera that allows control over aperture and shutter speed, make sure you’ve set an aperture that gives you enough depth of field that your whole face is in focus (otherwise you’ll have a sharp nose and the rest of you will be blurry) and a fast enough shutter speed that you won’t be a blurry mess if you happen to move at all as you’re taking the shot.
  6. Have fun. It’s not every day that you have a subject who’ll gladly submit to your every whim, is happy to experiment, and doesn’t mind taking a few dozen shots at a clip just to get that one “right” photo. Take full advantage!
  7. If all else fails, just have someone else take the darn picture.

 More don’ts: Lamebook

Rule 2: Always Have Your Camera

You never know when a photo opportunity will present itself...

Sooner or later, it’ll happen — if it hasn’t already. Maybe it’s a gorgeous sunset, maybe it’s a funny-looking beachgoer, or your kids/nieces/nephews/grandkids doing something silly or adorable… and you think to yourself, “Y’know, I really wish I had my camera.” And you might even try to recreate the image for friends and family, telling about the vivid colors, the breathtaking lighting… ’til you sound like someone trying to describe this great song they heard, only they can’t remember any of the words or hum any of the melody.

While it’s better to be mindful about your photography, and to take the time to properly frame and expose a shot, you can’t even do that if you haven’t got something with which to take the picture. This should be too obvious to have to mention, but anybody I know who’s even halfway serious about photography (including me) has missed one or more great shots because they didn’t have their camera with them.

And listen: we’re photographers, not fishermen. Fishermen have it easy (seasickness and the occasional accident with fishhooks aside); they can always talk about “the one that got away.” It’s part of the allure (pardon the pun) of fishing. But if you miss enough photos, after a while it feels less like something to brag about than it just feels like a drag.

There’s really no excuse for you not to have your camera with you. As I mentioned last week, nearly everyone has a camera now, whether it’s on your Crackberry, it’s an automatic compact, or it’s a DSLR. If you’ve already got the camera, have it with you.

As an aside: if your only camera is a DSLR, do yourself a favor and invest in something smaller. It doesn’t have to break the bank, nor does it even have to have all the bells and whistles. It just needs to take a good photograph, and be reasonably portable, since you’re not always going to want the bulk of a system camera hanging around your neck, tiring you out or drawing attention to you at times you may want to be a bit more discreet.

Just the same as a writer should always have a pen (you can always find something to write on) or an artist should always have a sketch pad, don’t wander out into the world, where all those photos are just waiting for you to notice them, without something — anything — to capture them. If you allow them to, images will never fail to sneak up on you and surprise you. But if the only place they exist is in your memory, it becomes much harder to share them later… and after all, the sharing’s the point, isn’t it?

Weekly News Roundup

Some news items from around the web this week (full text available at the websites linked below).

  • Nikon concept cameras displayed in France; Nikon D4 and D400 rumored for August ’11 (Nikon Rumors)
  • Leica M9-P, a “professional” variant of the M9 rangefinder, starts shipping. (Leica Rumors)
  • Hoya sells Pentax Imaging to Ricoh for $124.2 million; the first Lytro camera is due for the end of 2011; Olympus announces scads of new cameras and lenses (Photo Rumors)
  • Leaked specs for Canon G13 (Canon Rumors)
  • Panasonic G3 news and reviews trickling in (43Rumors)
  • New lenses from Tokina and Sigma, new software from DxO and Nik (DP Review)

Support Your Local Camera Shop!

Support your local diner while you're at it.

If you do a quick Google search, it’s pretty easy to find several thousand articles debating the merits of film versus digital photography (waters into which I’ll probably dip my own toe at some point). One thing that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention – and should – is what the rise of digital photography has done to the local camera shop. If film seems an endangered species, your local camera shop is doubly so.

The advent of digital photography as a viable medium roughly corresponds to the advent of viable, trustworthy online shopping. Just as companies like Fujifilm and Kodak have sometimes struggled to adapt to the changes digital has wrought in the landscape, so too have small independent retailers found themselves on the losing end of a price war sparked by the likes of Amazon and Best Buy. In the past, I’ve purchased from both of these retailers

Let’s look at the pros and cons of buying locally versus buying online:

  • Price: This is one arena in which your local camera shop has difficulty competing. However, ask. Some will be flexible on pricing to the extent that they can, others may be willing to bundle an additional item or two if you’re making a big purchase. Besides, the savings you’ll get at your typical online retailer on newer items often won’t be that much. To pick just two examples at this writing*, the Fuji X100 retails at Amazon for $1,199.95, while the Canon Rebel T3i (body only) goes for $799.00. Over at my closest local camera shop, the Fuji is identically priced, and the Canon sells for a whopping 99 cents more. Some savings, huh?
  • Selection: Sure, Amazon carries a bit of everything. They can afford to, since they buy in massive quantities, and because the sales of items that move help to offset the stuff that doesn’t. Your local shop doesn’t generally have that luxury, so they’re not going to have every item from every brand. However, if it’s a brand with which they usually deal, ask if they’ll special order for you.
  • Knowledge: You tell me which is easier: sorting through a hundred reviews on Amazon (or talking to a salesperson in Wal Mart, who usually works in small appliances, but is filling in for the person in the camera department today, ’cause the girl who normally works cameras is subbing for someone in Automotive), or asking one person at a camera shop who’s either worked with a brand for years, or has at the very least been thoroughly trained on it?
  • Support: No matter how hard we try, how knowledgeable we are, or how much research we put in, nobody thinks to ask every question before they buy. Some questions aren’t covered in the manual. And some of them won’t come up ’til you’ve used the camera for a couple of months. Many local shops also offer classes for all levels of photographers that can help take your photography to the next level.
  • Try Before You Buy: Quality control is generally pretty tight at most camera manufacturers. However, sample variations do exist. In other words, it’s possible to get a lousy copy of a camera, lens, or just about anything else you use on or around your camera. If you want to try out that “nifty fifty” on your camera before you buy it to make sure it doesn’t have any issues, you’ll have a much easier time doing it at your local dealer than, say, walking into Target with your gear and asking them to try out one or more lenses.
  • Used Equipment: Maybe you’ve outgrown the 18-55mm kit lens that came with your camera and want to sell it, or maybe you just don’t feel like paying retail for the macro lens you’ve been waiting to get your sweaty paws on. If inspecting and testing new equipment is a good idea, for used equipment it’s mandatory. It’s easier to do this before purchasing than having to re-pack and return an item that wasn’t quite what the online seller or auctioneer said.
  • Rentals: Every so often, a particular project or assignment may call for a specific type of equipment that you may only need one time. If you can’t see the sense in buying something, and don’t have a friend or colleague from whom you can borrow, rental’s always an option. You can’t rent a body, lens, speedlight, or much of anything else from most online retailers. ‘Nuff said.

Camera equipment doesn’t come cheap, so it can be tempting to buy on price alone. When you stop to consider the rest of the picture, however, buying locally has quite a bit to recommend it. Support your local camera shop!

*July, 2011

Additional reading:

1001 Noisy Cameras’ “Support Your Local Camera Store Initiative”


Review: The Amateur Photographer’s Handbook, by Aaron Sussman

The first edition of The Amateur Photographer’s Handbook came out in 1941. The edition sitting on my desk right now is the revised seventh edition, published 1967. The Handbook would continue through further editions, remaining in print through the early 1980’s. Of all the books I could’ve chosen for a first review – including perennial favorites by Ansel Adams and Freeman Patterson, among others – I’ve picked this one on purpose to illustrate a larger point.

No matter which of the many editions you choose, one conclusion is inescapable; photography has changed a lot since then. Even the author’s foreword admits as much: “All things change; but none more than photography.” But as you thumb through the pages, another, equally compelling, point begins to emerge; for all the changes we’ve seen in photography over the years, to say nothing of the changes yet to come, the fundamentals of the whole thing have remained surprisingly consistent.

Of course, as you’d expect in a medium where so much has changed, there’s information here that’s a bit past its sell-by date. Not many of us shoot film any more. Fewer still develop their own photos. The construction of the typical digital camera (not to mention a plethora of options for photo editing in software) renders many filters redundant. You may find yourself nodding off during the extended chapters on film types and development, if you don’t choose to skip them altogether.

On the whole, though, the topics covered in most of the book’s chapters have aged remarkably well. The fundamentals remain… well, fundamental. For instance, chapters — or even whole books — on shutter speed are still being written as we speak. With all that’s changed, it still and always comes back to the basics: light, f/stop, shutter speed, composition, and the perennial favorite, “What Camera Shall I Get?” A glance at the “What’s Wrong?” chapter reveals that it’s not just the technique that’s gone largely unchanged. Blown highlights, chromatic aberration, distortion, underexposure, soft lenses… now as then, whether as novices or experienced photographers, the problems and mistakes haven’t changed much, either.

So what lessons can you draw from this aged, but not outdated, book? One lesson that Sussman delivers is not to forget the simple joy in photography. Whether you’re doing this as a hobby or you’re lucky enough to get paid for it, for your own sake, please don’t let an outing with your camera be a chore or just another day at the office. The other lesson, whether the author intended it or not, is that for all the changes, much has stayed the same. So if you want to be a better photographer, your best bet is to remember and always return to the simple, timeless techniques that have applied from the medium’s earliest days, no matter what else may have changed.

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The Mindful Photographer

I really dislike the term “point and shoot.” At some point, it isn’t just a description of a camera; it becomes instead a description of a mindset and way of seeing that sucks the life out of your photos. To be sure, snapshots aren’t somehow evil. They have their place (more on that another time). But if you want to move beyond the crap shoot that is snapshot photography, it’s going to take an adjustment not only in technique, but also, more importantly, in your approach to photography. In short, you need to rethink the how and why of making pictures.

There’s a difference between taking a snapshot and making a photo because there’s a difference between looking and seeing, and it goes deeper than simple semantics. If our eyes are in reasonable working order, we look at things all day every day. We can’t help it. The world is a visually saturated place, whether you’re standing in the middle of Times Square or stuck behind a desk working on spreadsheets. We’re continually bombarded by visual stimuli, and we can’t possibly pause to take in every last millimeter of what fills our field of view. If we tried, we’d have no time for any of the rest of what life has to offer. So we scan briefly, and if something sufficiently bright, shiny, or colorful wanders into our field of vision, we might give it a few extra seconds’ half-assed attention.

Often as not, we take photos the same way. Bunch of visible stuff? Check. Camera? Check. Point. Shoot. Done. Then we wonder, when we didn’t stop to consider the dimensionality of our subject, why its photograph is flat and lifeless. Whether we’re seeing with our naked eye or through a viewfinder, think for a second about all we’re missing.

Seeing is active, a process rather than a result. It’s a conscious choice, a slowing down and a decision to focus. It’s taking the time to study something, to engage it with your head or your heart. Too often, we let stimuli of all sorts flow over us like water through a coffee filter, rather than being present in the moment and asking what that moment requires of us.

At first blush, this probably sounds like some kind of pseudo-mystical babble. It’s not. Don’t just point and shoot. Be still for a minute. Take a good, long look at what’s in front of you. What does it say to you? If something in your field of vision hasn’t grabbed you, will it really make a good photograph?

I use the term “making” a photo (versus “taking” it) on purpose. You can “take” anything, whether it’s a picture or a package of cookies, without giving much thought to it. But to “make” something signals intent, effort, and mindfulness. You can taste the difference between cookies you’ve taken and the ones you’ve made; your photos are no different. Sure, if you take that extra second, you’ll miss the occasional shot. Just like anything else you’re not in the habit of doing, it feels a bit awkward at first, but it gets easier with practice.

Further reading: Darcy Norman’s “On Photography as Mindful Seeing”

Tips: Photographing Fireworks

I know what you’re thinking. “I just started reading this thing yesterday. You want me to shoot fireworks already?” Relax. It’s not (bottle)rocket science. Everybody loves a good fireworks display. They also love ooh-ing and aah-ing over good fireworks pictures. So let’s run down the top ten tips for taking better fireworks photos.

  1. Test your equipment ahead of time. This is a best practice no matter what, or when, you shoot. If something’s wrong with your gear, or if it doesn’t work as advertised, you’re better off finding out before the main event than during, right?
  2. Scout your location ahead of time. You’ll want good lines of sight, but you also want to pay attention to what else will be in the frame depending on where you aim your camera. If you’re a good distance from where the fireworks are going off, you’re likely to have a flatter angle of view, meaning the potential for more clutter in your photos from surrounding buildings, people, etc. If you’re closer, you’ll have the option of shooting from a low angle, leading to fewer visual distractions.
  3. Turn off your flash. The only thing your flash will do when you’re taking fireworks photos is annoy the people sitting around you, and override your camera’s shutter speed settings, resulting in an empty black frame (I’m talking from experience here).
  4. Use a support. Full-automatic cameras (your trusty point-and-shoot, or the camera in your cellular phone) will tend to default to a longer shutter speed because it’s dark out, which means that every last vibration and jiggle will translate to fireworks that look… well, more like space creatures than fireworks. Even a camera that allows you to dial in settings will get better photos if it’s on a tripod than it will if you’re trying to handhold. Just make sure that the tripod head (that’s the bit at the top connected to the bottom of your camera) has a bit of give to it so you can pan easily to point your lens where the action is.
  5. If you have a remote or a cable release, use it. If you’re using (or just stuck with) a long shutter speed, camera motion from pushing down the shutter button can still register in the photo if you’re not careful. Using the remote eliminates the need to press the shutter button, eliminating with it one more source of camera shake. Test your remote ahead of time, both to make sure it’s working, and also to see where you need to be in relation to the camera for it to work.
  6. Use a zoom lens. Primes are great for a whole host of things, but this is one of those times when the flexibility of varied focal distances comes in handy when it comes time to frame your shot. Shoot wider (zoomed out) rather than tighter (zoomed in) at first, since it can be hard enough predicting where the action will be without adding to your troubles by shooting long. Once you’ve got a better idea of where everything’s going to be, you can zoom in tighter. Besides, you can always crop later, if need be.
  7. Use the lowest ISO setting possible. Yes, I know, you spent extra on a camera that’d give you lovely low-light pictures at a higher ISO. Good on you. But you won’t need that here, since you’re taking pictures of a light source rather than trying to pick up on what little reflected light may be available. Boosting your ISO is likely to boost chromatic noise and grain.
  8. Use your camera’s burst setting, if it has one. The first shot you get may not show the fireworks in full bloom, or may not get everything that’s exploded if a few fireworks have been set off at once. With a burst shot, you can pick and choose your best shots. A caveat here: depending on your camera’s write speed, buffer size, and the class of memory card you’re using, shooting a burst can result in long lag times between shots. The first burst may come off just fine, but the next burst might come 30-45 seconds later, and may not be a full burst (you may get one or two shots off if you’re lucky). Rather than being disappointed by missed shots on the big night, try your camera out in burst mode right now, paying attention to how many shots it takes in a single burst, and how long it takes before it can take another full burst. If you find yourself gritting your teeth between shots, skip this step.
  9. Shoot manually if your camera allows it and you’re comfortable doing so. If you can’t, or you don’t feel comfortable, don’t. If your camera has a fireworks setting, you can use that. Night Mode is also an option, though not necessarily your best one; you’ll get a longer shutter speed, true, but it also tends to boost the camera’s ISO (see number 6, above). If it doesn’t (or you’d prefer not to use it), do this instead: set your camera to 100-200 ISO, f/8 to f/16 (no higher, since some lenses are fuzzy at higher f/ numbers), a long shutter speed, focus set to infinity.
  10. Chimp. “Chimping” is the practice of checking your camera’s LCD to see how the last photo came out. You don’t want to overdo it (nothing’s worse than missing the next shot ’cause you were looking at the last one), but checking your shots from time to time will give you an idea of whether you need to tweak either your settings or your technique.

If you’ve done all of the above, or at least as much as your gear will allow, you may still have blurring, noise, or other issues. If that’s the case, don’t despair; see what you can do to work with your camera’s quirks to make photos that are interesting in their own right.

Hopefully this demystifies the process of photographing fireworks. Have any other tips to share? Pass them along!

Rule 1: The First Ten Thousand

Not exactly my best work.

“Your first ten thousand photos are your worst.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Cartier-Bresson knew a thing or two about good photography. From the late 1920’s ’til his death nearly eighty years later, he was responsible for some of the most iconic images in photographic history… all of which is rather a longish way of saying, the man knows whereof he speaks.

Your first several (thousand) photos won’t be your best work, and that’s okay. Photography, from the act of making an individual photo, to the learning curve associated with being a photographer, is a learning process that, if you’re lucky, never ends. That’s not to say that you won’t have some keepers, and maybe even an image somewhere in that batch that knocks the socks off nearly anyone who sees it. What it does speak to is the discipline and sheer repetition you’ll have to go through to be any good at photography.

That’s the good news. The better news is that technology is still growing at a dizzying pace (well, it’s better news unless you’re the type who absolutely must have the latest and greatest everything; in that case, prepare to be broke more often than not), with the end result that photography is now a more democratic medium than it’s been at nearly any point in its history. Continue reading “Rule 1: The First Ten Thousand”