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.


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!


Apr 16 2011

Hidden hate

If you’ve been reading this blog for very long, you know that I live in rural Indiana. Living here and wrangling photographs from what is—let’s face it—not the first place you think of when you’re looking for places to photograph is something I’ve been doing for a long time. The quest to find the extraordinary in the ordinary forms the the basis for my book, Close to Home: Finding Great Photographs in Your Own Back Yard. My philosophy has always been to open your eyes to your surroundings and look deeply into the place where you live.

Abandoned

Sometimes that view can be ugly. Because of the recession and the problems in the housing market, there are several homes in the area that have been foreclosed upon—and in some cases, completely abandoned by their owners. I drive by these houses on a daily basis on my commute to work and I’ve always been interested in learning more about them. Inspired by the launch of Rear Curtain—a new photographic storytelling web site curated by my friends Ray Ketcham, Sabrina Henry and Matt Connors—I decided this weekend to start a photography project to document these homes and perhaps tell a story of economic hardship and loss.

What I found what was a completely different story.

Hidden Hate

This house was abandoned by its owners about 18 months ago. I don’t know how or why it happened. One day they were there; the next they weren’t. (If it’s been foreclosed, the bank apparently wasn’t worried about getting their money out of it, since it’s never been for sale or rent.) It sits along a lightly traveled county road, making it an easy target for vandals. All of the windows are broken, the back door hangs open, and it’s been through two winters in this condition. Sad that it came to this, no?

But the vandalism has exposed something, at least to me, that many of us might think shouldn’t possibly exist at the beginning of the 21st century. Something beyond just trashing an abandoned house. Something ugly.

Pure, unadulterated hate.

The words on that wall are a shocking reminder that we still have so far to go, even in an age where we can be more educated and enlightened than ever before. Darkness still exists, and it’s out there. It’s in my neighborhood and yours, no matter how things seem on the surface. The fact that these words are inside the house speaks volumes, and it saddens me to know that someone living somewhere near me has these words in their heart. It shows me a wholly different view of “close to home.”