Oct 19 2011

Thinking about thinking… and not thinking

Angels looking on

How much thinking do you do when you photograph? A lot? A little? Somewhere in between?

I’ve been thinking about thinking in photography since I attended the Artists’ Round Table (ART) in Port Townsend, Washington this past June. During our image reviews, I learned that many times I was overthinking my photographs. I was spending too much time making sure things were exactly the way I wanted them in both subject matter and technique, as opposed to paying attention to what I wanted to say. As a result, many of my photographs were, as Ansel Adams put it, “sharp photographs of a fuzzy concept.”

Not all of my photographs, though. So I began to look closer at the ones that seemed to work better to see if I could discover a pattern or at least a clue about why they did. What I discovered were two things: a) even if I wasn’t consciously thinking about composition and sharpness and depth of field and everything else, I still managed to do those things pretty well, and b) these photographs moved me more than the ones I made where the technique was my focus.

What did this tell me? Well, that some of the things I worried about when making photographs could now be relegated to what you might describe as muscle memory. I could trust myself to do them as needed whenever I made a photograph and concentrate on what I wanted to express with the photograph. And instead of worrying about those things, I was free to really think about how the photograph would feel as opposed to how it looked.

Now, I’m not saying that you need to stop thinking about technique or composition, etc., or that you’re “doing it wrong”. What you know about making photographs is essential to your growth as a photographer and the quality of your photographs. But if you’re like me, you might remain focused on that too long after you’ve mastered it well enough to make good photographs. The most compelling photographs aren’t always the sharpest or have the greatest dynamic range.

Hanging onto this limited vision also does something else. It allows us to avoid thinking deeply about what we’re trying to express with a photograph and what we have to say about a subject. That’s a lot harder to figure out, at least for me, and something I still need to think more about. Many photographers—both amateur and professional—end up here, focused on technique, and then never go past it. We keep repeating the same photographs using a particular technique—which we often mistake for our style or voice—or we do it simply because it sells.

So, how do you do this? How do you avoid dwelling on technique? Well, by throwing it away completely. Try this: set your camera on Auto (gasp!) and take a picture without looking through the viewfinder. Don’t just fire wildly, though. Find something interesting; something you would normally shoot—your kids at play, a street scene, even a sunset. Hold your camera over your head or at your waist. Oh, put the tripod away, too. (Nice try, kid.)

Don’t think about the shutter speed or the aperture, or whether you want to use HDR or a limited depth of field. Give up control for a little while. Shoot when things look interesting to you; when you feel the moment as well as when you see it. Maybe even close your eyes. Use the Force, Luke.

After you’ve done this, take a look at the photographs you made. A lot of them could be throwaways, but some of them might not. Look at each of these closely and see if it conveys the feeling of what you saw. Were you successful in showing that? If so, give yourself credit for it, and remember it when you return to your normal style of shooting.

You might just be a better photographer than you think.

Oct 3 2011

Close to Home, Port Townsend

Close to Home group picture

I’ve been struggling a bit over what to say about the Close to Home workshop in Port Townsend this past weekend. As both a learner and a teacher, I’ve always felt that workshops like these are about the students and not the instructor(s), but I’ve had several people ask me how I felt the workshop went, so I thought I’d give you my take on it.

Admittedly, I was nervous. About a lot of things, really. It was, after all, the first Close to Home workshop and the first workshop I’d ever led. As with the book, I was about 80% excited and 20% terrified. Most of all, though, I was worried that it would be flat—an adequate workshop, but without the kind of dynamic interaction that I’ve experienced at the Italy Within the Frame workshop and at the Artists’ Round Table.

To counter this, I wrote little notes to myself, planting some of them in my initial presentation and afterward sending myself electronic reminders—all to say, “Keep focused on the students. It’s their workshop, not yours.” And I think it worked.

Now before you think I’m patting myself on the back, the real credit for making it work belongs to the students themselves. Sure, Ray and I spent a lot of time planning and pulling off this workshop and I don’t discount that, but it would have never happened at all without Dorothy, Franz, Duncan, Don, Mike, Daniel, Cami, Ellie, Sabrina, and Eligis. The greatest reward a teacher can have is to see his students focused on and excited about their work and these folks gave me that in spades—along with some pretty amazing work.

(There’s a Flickr group where I hope they will eventually share their work with you. It’s at http://www.flickr.com/groups/cthpt if you’d like to take a peek.)

I’d also like to again thank our terrific sponsors: Craft and Vision, ThinkTANK Photo, OnOneSoftware, Luma Labs, and Laura Shoe for their generous support of this initial effort. I hope to work with all of you again in the future.

Also, of course, my sincere gratitude to Ray Ketcham for co-hosting the workshop with me. As our students found out, Ray is a terrific teacher and a special guy to know (and that a clipboard and a hard hat from Walmart might get you access to a few places).

Finally, though she won’t want me to single her out, I’m also especially grateful to Sabrina Henry for doing a lot of the legwork in organizing this workshop and trying her best to keep Ray and I on track, which as anyone who knows us will tell you is a nearly impossible task.

There are things I can do better… and I will. There will be more of these in other places and with a different people. But this one will always hold a special place for me as the one where ten people took a chance on learning something from me. I’m grateful for that.

So keep an eye out here and the rest of the Internets for future versions of the workshop. I hope you’ll consider coming to one sometime when I’m close to your home.

Sep 6 2011

Why this workshop?

[Photography] is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis. – Henri Cartier-Bresson

I’ve spent a some time here recently telling you about the Close to Home workshop and the great sponsors we’re working with to bring it to you, and I am certainly grateful for their participation and their support. I personally use many of their products on a daily basis and I highly recommend you try them, too.

Day is done

But workshops are not just about the sponsors or the prizes they’ve donated for participants. I think it’s important for you to know what it is you’re getting yourself into so you can decide if a particular workshop is right for you. I always look at workshops and seminars as opportunities to do two things: a) learn from other photographers I respect and b) grow as a photographer by learning something new. Some workshops and seminars are designed to further your off-camera flash skills or post-processing techniques and they are certainly valuable to photographers of all levels. There comes a time, however, when you find yourself dissatisfied with simply learning new “tips and tricks.” There’s that voice in your head that says, “I want to do more. I want my photography to mean something more.” That’s where I’ve found myself recently and that’s where Ray and I plan to take you.

Now, of course I want you to come to the workshop to experience this for yourself, simply because there’s nothing like the kind of energy that a group of photographers focused on the same goal can bring, but I think I can give you enough information to help you decide if this workshop is right for you.

Essentially, the Close to Home workshop is about seeing. Seeing photographs, seeing stories and helping you tie your photography to your life—in both small and big ways. The book, Close to Home: Finding Great Photographs in Your Own Back Yard, is really a smaller discussion of a big idea—that great photography comes from within you, not where you live or travel . Ray and I are going to help you get closer to this idea through a series of discussions and exercises designed to slow you down and help you see the world around you more clearly. Then, once we’ve gotten you used to this approach, we’ll give you an individual assignment for the rest of the workshop so you can put these ideas into practice, and ask you to show the rest of the group your results at the end.

This may seem a bit like navel-gazing Zen meditation—and sometimes it is—but there are definitely practical results that you’ll see. You will understand better why you make photographs and how to make all of the photographic skills and techniques you’ve already acquired better serve your particular kind of seeing. It doesn’t matter if portraits or landscapes or abstracts are your thing, and it doesn’t matter what your skill level is. We want to help you connect your photography with your life.

I hope you’ll join us.

Don’t forget that early registration ends tonight, Sept. 6, at midnight PST, where you can save 10% off of the regular workshop fee of $299. If you register and pay by the deadline, you’ll be eligible for a chance to win one of two copies of Laura Shoe’s Lightroom Fundamentals DVD. Register today!