Rule 4: The Photographer in the Sensual World

I can just about taste it (the lettuce, that is, not the turtle).

To start today, let me don my Captain Obvious uniform, right down to the special hat and epaulettes. Let’s begin with a blindingly obvious statement, and then work our way to the somewhat-less-obvious: photography, being a visual medium, relies a lot on the eyes, not only in its consumption, but also in the making of a photo.

Now the less-obvious bit. We spend so much time thinking about the photograph as pure visual that there’s a tendency to forget the other senses play a big part both in making a photo, and also in its eventual perception. You’ve got those other four senses lying around, as it were, so it’d be a shame not to use them just ‘cause there’s a camera in your hand.

Think about all the associations tied in with our senses. They aren’t just a way to interact with and process our environments; they’re a conduit to a vast storehouse of memories. All those tastes, smells, textures, and sounds are also how we interpret and understand the world and what’s in it. When someone looks at a photo – yours or anyone else’s – they’re not just looking; they’re unpacking all the other “stuff” that’s present in the photo.

Now, let’s look at it from the photographer’s point of view. The question becomes how to take all of that stuff – the associations that go with a lifetime’s sensory experience – and convey it in a photo. It’s one thing to snap a photo of, say, a Thanksgiving dinner; it’s quite another to be mindful of it to a degree that you can convey something of it through your photos. How do you take all those sounds, tastes, textures and smells and somehow squeeze them onto a 4”x6” piece of paper?

For practical purposes, it’s hard to get a single photo that’s going to impact all the senses equally. Since we all perceive things differently, one person looking at a picture of a Thanksgiving dinner might be drawn to the texture of the cranberry sauce, while another might be “hearing” one of the guests saying grace over the meal. I’ve mentioned being present in the moment when you take a picture, and here’s another reason to do that: besides the visual, what’s the next thing having the biggest impact on you right then, and how might you incorporate that into the photo? Challenge yourself; how can you convey those non-visual elements of your scene? How do you pick up on the stray bits of conversation, the feel of a linen tablecloth, the taste of the turkey and stuffing, the bouquet of the glass of wine you just drank?

Brian Eno once lamented that too much of music comes from, and is aimed at, the head. It neglects the feet, the heart, and so much else. He said that music should never make the listener ask, “Well, that’s nice, but what’s the rest of me for?” Photography’s like that, too, both for the person viewing your work, and also for you as you’re making the photo. Giving your other senses a space in the photo, even if you just choose one other sense on which to focus for any given scene, adds a dimensionality and depth that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Photography can be a wonderful feast for the eyes, but it shouldn’t starve the rest of you.

Postscript: As I was milling over the ideas for this post, researching, writing, and rewriting, I came across two great articles that I’d like to share with you. The first comes from Sara Healy, whose writing and “story photos” are great prompts for art, writing, and just thinking about creativity. The other comes from Mel and Philip Tulin’s Outdoor Eyes, a ridiculously comprehensive site for outdoorsy types, some of whom may also happen to be photographers. “Seeing With Outdoor Eyes” says some of what I’ve said above plus a whole lot more.

Ansel Adams and Lemon Cake

Public Domain: Tetons by Ansel Adams, 1942 (National Parks Service/NARA)

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved my Aunt Olga’s lemon cake. It’s one of those things that crop up on the occasional birthday or special occasion, and it tastes like nothing else in the world. Well, one time I asked for, and was lucky enough to get, the recipe for that lemon cake. I’ve tried making it a few times over the years, and while it’s been competent (tasted fine, didn’t have the consistency of, say, the stuffing from a seat cushion), it wasn’t anything like the original.

Fast-forward a few years. Not long ago, I read an article about a person, or maybe a group of people, that organizes photo tours to the places where Ansel Adams made some of his best-known photographs. People from the world over dutifully trudge to the same parks and vistas that Adams so lovingly, and expertly, documented, waiting for exactly the same light, some even using the same kinds of cameras used by the Master himself. I’m sure their photos were competent (exposed well, didn’t look like the aftermath of an all-night bender), but they weren’t anything like the original.

These two seemingly-disparate things have more in common than you might think.

Some people, whether they’re musicians, painters, chefs or photographers, jealously guard their technique. They realize they have something unique, and I think on some level, they feel that if they share what went into that “something,” some of its uniqueness is somehow stripped away or diminished. They may be perfectly good at what they do, but they’re missing the one thing that makes a good craftsman great: they don’t share their secrets.

A great cook can teach you every last one of their recipes and techniques, and a great photographer can be willing to show you every last step in their process, from the framing of a shot, to the settings used, to their developing/postproduction process. They’ll get their results; you, probably, will not. Some of this has to do with the years of experience that go into becoming an expert. *

Some of it, though – and a big part of the reason that those who share, do – is that knowing someone else’s process, their recipes, if you will, is only a starting point. You can become competent following someone else’s lead, but the only way to become great (or get near great’s ZIP code) is to use those teachings as a point of departure in developing your own voice. Just the same as great cooking stems from the taste of an individual chef (any two people can make pesto, for instance, using the same ingredients, but taste and experience will generally mean different proportions of each), great photography comes from seeing the world as only you do, and conveying that vision to someone else.

So I’ll still make Aunt Olga’s lemon cake from time to time, and one of these days, if the mood strikes, I may even schlep my camera and myself to the Grand Tetons. But the bigger challenge, not just for me, but for anyone else who picks up a camera – whether they realize it or not – is moving beyond someone else’s way of doing things, and finding your own.

*This is also one very big reason that the recently discovered Adams negatives were regarded not to be worth quite as much as their discoverer had hoped. It wasn’t just Adams’ composition that made those photos; his developing process (not just the chemical part of it, but other aspects, like the way he dodged and burned his prints) played as much of a part in the photos’ final appearance, and without that individual touch, the negatives lose a good deal of their impact.

The Mindful Photographer, Part 2

Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh, in his wonderful book The Miracle of Mindfulness, tells a story about eating a tangerine with a friend. To paraphrase: the friend was wolfing down the tangerine, not giving much thought to the simple act of eating a tangerine. Thây goes on to say that if you’re not eating the tangerine mindfully–thinking only of eating the tangerine as you eat it–then you’re not eating the tangerine. You’re ingesting whatever else is “on your plate” at the time. So you could be eating The Real Housewives of Azerbaijan, or drinking rush-hour traffic.

The same thing applies to photography. Now, I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m some kind of Zen master. I’ve got monkey mind that’d do Curious George proud. I’d love to say that every time I leave my apartment with my camera, there’s an immediate and intense level of focus (that’s me, not the camera) on nothing but the myriad of sights around me, but I wouldn’t even fool myself saying that. It usually goes a bit more like this:

“Okay, that chipmunk’s a bit overexposed. Do I go with a faster shutter speed, or just use exposure compensation? Tweak the shutter speed. Nope. Still overdone. Overdone? I’m hungry, that’s what it is. Turkish? Is that Turkish place still – what, they serve pizza now? Okay, Greek?”

I’ll spare you the other 3,257 steps in the process. Suffice to say, I’m surprised that some of my flora and fauna don’t come out looking like kebabs, or newspapers, or whatever other digression wanders across my mind at any given time.

Speaking of digressions, let’s get back on topic. It isn’t just the distractions of everyday life. Sometimes, paradoxically, photography itself can be the distraction in your photography. If your last session didn’t go well – you were distracted, you couldn’t find anything that caught your eye, everything came out blurry, your batteries ran out in mid-shoot – it can be very easy to carry those frustrations into your next shoot. This doesn’t mean that you’re a lousy photographer; it means you’re a human being. We all do it. Try, though, to be mindful of it, and to cut it out when you find yourself doing it; it’s one thing to be diligent about avoiding the same mistakes, but it’s another to repeat them, or trade them for new ones, because you obsess over them.

And, strange as it may seem, your photos will look different if all you’re doing is paying attention to where you are and what you’re shooting. Being mentally absent from the process means you’ll also be absent from the end result; your photos could’ve been taken by anyone, with no particular skill or attention. But being present for your photos, and especially for your subjects (whether or not they’re human), means having more of yourself – your individuality, your unique “voice” – present in your photos. Stop shooting last night’s argument, tomorrow’s dinner date, the phone bill, or your uncomfortable shoes, and just be fully where you are in that moment.

Adapted from my other/earlier blog, A Slight Delay.

A Quick Guide to Candid Photography

Come to think of it, don't go sneaking up behind people and popping paper bags, either.

Want to kill the mood and momentum at a party? Well, for starters, you could put Stockhausen on the stereo. Or you could walk around with your camera, and every time you see people in conversation, laughing, popping coconut shrimp into their mouths, or just standing pensively by the punch bowl, say, “Say cheese!” And of course, if the party’s noisy enough, you may find yourself saying it loudly and often enough (to the same person, no less) that people are shooting you uncomfortable glances. Capturing a smile on camera is one thing… capturing a rictus of surprise and displeasure that’s better suited to a Victorian death mask? Well, let’s just say those won’t be keepers.

The candid photograph is the antithesis of the forced or posed photo. What you’re doing instead is observing, waiting for the right time to get the right shot. Henri Cartier-Bresson (yes, him again) called it the “decisive moment,” that split second when a series of seemingly random things (people, their activities, their surroundings) converge at one photogenic point in time. As he put it to an interviewer, “Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

While we can pose our subjects, in effect creating those moments, the end result isn’t going to have the same panache or spontaneity as it would if we caught it on the fly. And really, Cartier-Bresson was far from being the only practitioner of spontaneous photography. Robert Frank, Robert Doisneu, Arthur Fellig (better known as Weegee) and a host of others have proven that some of the best photography comes from being on the periphery of the action, rather than inserting one’s self in the middle of it all.

As befits a style that’s rooted in spontaneity and simplicity, the techniques for good candids are uncomplicated.

  • Be unobtrusive: one more reason to always have your camera: the more often people, whether they’re in your family or in your neighborhood, see you with your gear, the more they get used to it and the less they think of it. You don’t have to hide in a duck blind to get good candids, you just have to blend in enough that your subjects aren’t self-conscious about the camera.
  • Travel light. A small camera helps, since you’ll look more like a tourist than a photographer. If you’re going to use an SLR, prime lenses help keep your kit light; barring that, use a smallish zoom. Likewise, carry your gear in something that doesn’t scream, “LOOK AT ALL MY EQUIPMENT!”
  • Shoot from the hip. If you’re using a lens that covers various focal lengths, there are two different ways to go; either to the “wide” end (18-24mm) to catch as much of the scene as possible, or “normal”* (40-50mm), which captures less breadth, but more detail. If you’re not going to be keeping an eye on your viewfinder or LCD, shoot multiples, since you’ll improve your chances of getting something worth keeping.
  • Check settings, making sure not only that your ISO/shutter/aperture are appropriate to where and what you’re shooting, but also that your camera’s onboard flash is turned off, and the camera’s sounds are either muted or quieted (you don’t need the autofocus beep, or the “shutter” sound that some manufacturers add to let you know that you have, in fact, taken a picture). If your camera has a quiet mode, use it.
  • Pay attention to your surroundings, not only for the scenery, but also for safety. If you’re getting nasty looks or a bad vibe, get the heck outta Dodge.
  • Get shots of people doing things. Whether they’re gutting fish, busking, talking and laughing, or even just reading, people look the most natural when they’re just in their element, being themselves and doing their own thing.
  • You’re trying to capture the essence of the moment, not prettify it. Resist the urge to start rearranging things. If something in the scene doesn’t work – the lighting’s “off,” the background’s distracting, the level of excitement isn’t what you’d like – move along.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also pause for a second to address the ethics of candid photography. For starters, be honest (they’re not called “Candids” for nothing). It’s one thing to blend in and be stealthy, but it’s something else altogether to be flat-out dishonest if someone asks what you’re doing. On a related note, don’t stalk people. Be extra careful shooting kids, or even shooting around them. If you’re not sure about your subject, regardless of age or circumstances, ask permission, and honor whatever answer you get. Be aware of local customs and attitudes; if you’re somewhere very unfamiliar, travel with someone who knows the lay of the land and can not only advise you, but also make introductions if that’d be helpful. Most of all, don’t be “That creep with the camera.”

To make photos that get attention, sometimes the last thing you want or need to do is to draw attention to yourself. Let your vision shine through in your photos, but be mindful of the fact that sometimes, the harder you work to get the scene to conform to what you’d like it to be, your photos end up being more about you than they are about what you’re photographing. Let the events and people be what they will; be present, observe, and let the pics fall where they may.

*A “Normal Lens” is called that because its field of vision closely approximates what the human eye sees. This is about 40mm on a 35mm (or Full Frame) camera. 50mm lenses also tend to be lumped into this category. On an APS-C camera (a.k.a. a “cropped sensor,” because its sensor size is smaller than a frame of 35mm film), your lens behaves as though it’s got a magnification factor of about 1.5 times (Nikon, Pentax, Sony) or 1.6 times (Canon), so 28mm acts like 40mm, and 35mm acts closer to 5omm. This is great at the “long” end of a telephoto (at 300mm, you’re getting what amounts to 450mm), but it’s a pain in the ass if you’re trying to shoot wide-angle, since 18mm (where most kit lenses, and even some of the more expensive ones, start) is effectively 24mm, which is wide, but not that wide. On the off chance that this all sounds like gobbledeygook and your head’s starting to hurt, the easiest things to do would be either a: go to your local camera shop, try out the lenses, and see what works for you, or b: try your kit lens at different focal lengths, and get used to what each does to your photos. I’ll be covering lenses in a later post.

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

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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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!