“If you want to make more interesting pictures, become a more interesting person.” – Jay Maisel
If part one of making things with meaning is to learn more about yourself then part two has to be all about leaning in and connecting with the world.
For me a deeper understanding of what resonates with me helps me get myself into situations that I more likely connect with. Even then I feel that the camera can be a barrier which makes me more an observer, rather than a participant in the world.
The answer to the question of ‘how to break down that barrier’ is seemingly obvious. Take time to experience the place and people that you’re going to photograph and build a relationship before rushing to grab a few shots.
Michael Kenna says that he takes time to talk to the land before he photographs, I suspect that this is his way of ensuring that barrier is broken down. It’s a good practice to take time to wander around with out the camera and see what’s grabbing your attention before racing in to photograph. Not advice I always follow myself and I can tell when I do and when I don’t.
The same goes for people too. I can’t imagine why you would want to photograph people, to make their portraits, if you’re not genuinely interested in who they are and what’s their story. Again, I think that you can tell when you look at the work from people who ‘stole’ the portraits and those who really took the time to engage.
Make photographs about things you care about and make me care too.
In a world where everyone is a photographer and there are more photographs deposited into the ether every minute than there were photographs taken in the 19 th century one has to wonder whether anyone is really paying attention to todays photographs. How many of these photographs are looked at again by the photographer let alone by the social networks that they are shared with.
The photographs that stand out, those that we return to, the images that we print, are the ones where we really connected with the subject. This is often easier said than done.
All too often the camera serves as a barrier, sometimes an essential protection, but frequently the thing that inhibits connection with the subject. The more you are thinking about technical details or what else is going on around you the less available you are to connect with your subject, whether that’s a person, the landscape or whatever you choose to photograph.
The more present you are with your subject the more likely it is that you will have an experience and photograph that will endure. For me this means doing all the thinking in advance, or at least allowing the chatter to fall away so that I can be attuned and respond appropriately to opportunities that come my way. To listen carefully to the voice sometimes quiet, sometimes a roar, that encourages me to take the photograph.
I’ve come to believe that the deeper your relationship with yourself – the clearer you are about what’s important to you, who your influences are – the more likely you are to recognize what caught your attention when you walked by a potential subject. Why sometimes it’s a quiet voice inviting you to take the photograph and sometimes a roaring demand.
As I look around for ‘how to’ resources for lightroom and photoshop one of the people that I continually come back to is Julieanne Kost. Julieanne is the Principal Digital Imaging Evangelist for Adobe Systems, which means that she spends much of her time on the road speaking at conferences and teaching how to get the most out of lightroom and photoshop. I recently worked through her ‘Advance Photoshop Layers‘ course on the CreativeLive site which was excellent. She’ll be teaching during the upcoming Photoshop week on CreativeLive which will be worth checking out.
Many of the examples that Julieanne uses during her demonstrations are from her personal projects. Her book Window Seat is quite interesting and now available as a digital book. Well worth a look. It’s the photoillustrations, such as the one above, that of course really capture my attention given my interest in assembling images from parts. Check out the videos below to see more of how these are constructed:
Often as a beginning photographer you will hear the admonishment, ‘get it right in camera’, this is good advice when your starting out. It provides a restriction, a box to work in, and edges to push up against. It forces you to think about what is the subject, how do you frame the subject so that everyone knows what the subject it, are there lines that you can use to lead the eye through the image and on an on. A multitude of decisions to make on the fly that with practice become second nature, an instinct and perhaps one of the reasons that it can be so hard for some to teach what they are clearly so capable of doing.
I find that I am increasingly less interested in getting it right in camera and more interested in making sure that I’ve captured enough of the scene in front of me to be able to recreate what I felt when I was there. I’ll shoot different shutter speeds to capture waves with just the right amount of blur, I’ll focus at different points in the image so that I can get good front to back depth of field and I’ll shoot a lot of frames. I’ve actually been doing this for a while and it’s taking some time for my post-processing skills to catch up with what I’d felt and imagined I would be able to create when I was stood in various places around the world blasting away.
Brooke creates worlds that ‘she wishes we could live in, where secrets float out in the open, where the impossible becomes possible’, often using herself as the model for the photograph. She is able to create these new worlds using relatively simple techniques in photoshop.
Looking at some of the behind the scenes videos on her You Tube channel made me realize how much you could do if you just understood just a few of the tools in photoshop deeply. Watch Brooke in action and hear her talk about her work and process in the videos below.
I doubt that I am unusual in having an almost continual running conversation with myself. One of the topics of conversation with myself when I travel is is to manage expectations for the photographs that I’ll create. ‘You take you with you wherever you go’, I told myself.
Playing with that phrase over the weekend I came to ‘Wherever you go there you are’, which felt too familiar for me not to have seen it somewhere else. A quick search came up with the most likely place that I’d seen it before – the title of Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s book of the same name that deals with mindfulness. Other sources were fun though, particularly Buckaroo Banzai, a cult film from the ’80’s.
The chapter in Kabat-Zinn’s book that is titled ‘Wherever you go there you are’ the problem that I was coaching myself through is described perfectly. Namely this – we have a tendancy to flee from things, if it’s not good here it will be better there. The problem of course is that many of the things that we’re running from have an uderlying root cause and that is us.
Not being happy with the photographs you’re taking at home doesn’t mean that the photographs you make when you travel to an exotic location will be too much different. They will inevitably have your signature all over them, they will be you, that it if you’re doing anything right at all. For me this means that I won’t suddenly channel Michael Kenna or Michael Levin when I travel to Hokkaido. I may go to the same places and see the same things but the photographs will be different, either dramatically or subtly.
In fact you should be striving to take ‘you’ photographs, those photographs that are a unique expression of how you see the world, and being doing that whether you’re at home or not. I, perhaps we, need to get comfortable with that, own it and milk it for all it’s worth.
I’ve been feeling overwhelmingly stuck and uninspired over the last few months, perhaps longer if I’m being honest with myself. That’s not to say that I haven’t had my moments but it’s been and continues to be hard going.
The usual advice that you get in these circumstances is to keep going. Work yourself out of the funk, make a lot of work and see where that leads you. My advice to myself was to play more.
After a bit of digging I realized that I was working within a particular sent of constraints that had provided a useful framework at one point but now were stifling. I needed to step back and break the rules that I’d established for myself.
Playing the camera on my iPhone has been enormously helpful in breaking one of my rules – always shoot on a tripod – it also forced me into using a single lens which made me move around and change my point of view to get the shot that I was interested in.
I also pushed beyond the boundaries that I am comfortable with in processing these images, often adding a lot of contrast, a texture, a tilt shift look, really piling stuff on until it was in a realm that was totally alien to me. I think that Brian Eno would do similar things in music production push beyond the limits but then retreat to a useful and usable position.
I’ve been enjoying playing and continue to do so. Here’s a question for you:
What ‘rules’ either acknowledged or not do you follow? How could you systematically break them.
I’d love to hear what restraints you impose on yourself.
Last year rather than create New Years Resolutions I decided to jump on the Chris Brogan band wagon and come up with three words that would be touchstones for my actions throughout the year. As I chose to do something I would check in with those words and see how it fit. For more about this approach check out Chris Brogan’s post here that introduces his words for 2015.
Since I found this approach useful I thought I’d do it again this year. So here we go:
My words last year were Healthy, Creative & Minimalist. I would give myself grades of A, B and C for each of these respectively. I have a good foundation in each of these but now want to build on that base. Apparently ‘201’ courses are what you would take after the 101 introductory courses. 201 therefore is a reminder for me that I need to be looking at ways to up my game in each of these areas. To reinforce the good habits that I created in 2014 and take the next step.
By necessity from a lack of time, money and energy I have sharply focused my efforts in a few narrowly defined areas. It’s time to poke at some of the boundaries I’ve established and also take some leaps and try things totally new.
If it’s not fun why are you doing it? Unfortunately I seem to have forgotten to schedule ‘fun’ on my calendar – we’ll be doing more celebrating of key milestones, events and just letting our hair down in 2015. Life’s too short not to.
How about you? New Years Resolutions? Goals? I’d love to hear how you’re set up for the year ahead.