Doing’ it for the ‘Gram

I learn all kinds of stuff by listening to my kids talk to their friends. Some of it immediately, some of it takes me a while to unravel.

It’s snowboard season here in New England which means trips to and from the slopes with groups of high school age kids for me. They are very much into making videos of their exploits to get feedback on how they are doing with learning tricks but also to post on social media. ‘Doin’ it for the ‘gram’ was the phrase used in a rather derogatory tone.

That got me thinking about what I post on social media and why and what are my expectations. I am playing a game with my posts on Instagram, or at least I have some simple rules that I am following. Must be shot and edited on my phone. No wireless transfer of files from any of my ‘fancy’ cameras, no transfer of files from the phone onto my computer for editing. All has to be done on the phone. Also the apps that I use can’t be mobile versions of Lightroom or Photoshop.

This of course is less of an amazing feat now that the phone cameras are so incredibly capable and produce high-res files. It goes without saying that phones themselves are way more powerful computers than the first desktop computers I worked with but then I grew up with a single rotary dial phone in the house if you catch my drift.

The result is a set of photos that are in effect sketches or studies. I’m trying out composition ideas using the phone and quickly processing using filters and effects in a small number of apps – typically Snapseed and VSCO. I’m often accused of being heavy handed with the processing – probably true, certainly lacking the kind of finesse possible on a desktop. Are these the high impact, portfolio best images that will garner lots of ‘likes’ not at all. But that’s not the point.

I’m having fun playing and don’t mind letting people look over my shoulder see my sketchbook develop.

How about you? How do you use social media?

James Richards – Urban Sketcher

I wanted to finish this trilogy of urban sketchers with James Richards. I recently got a free trial to SkillShare and poking around found James’ Urban Sketching tutorials. After that was off down the rabbit hole.

He’s an engaging teacher with a very distinct style. I especially enjoyed learning how he adds and draws people. I now have pages and pages of people in my notebooks as I learned to draw people the way James shows in his tutorials.

I find having a framework to guide and structure your thinking really helps. James has a 5 step process that he articulates in his class that makes sense to me and as I listen to others is one that many people seem to follow. The process that he follows starts with a thumbnail sketch to get a sense of the composition and contrast – light and dark areas. From that the real work starts – Eyeline, People & Big Shapes; Details; Darks; Color. It’s a learnable process that even I could manage to wrap my head around. Really enjoyable! If you’re interested you should check out the tutorials on SkillShare. Get a little taste in the video below. He also has a book that describes his process, Freehand Drawing & Discovery. For more information about James check out his website here and his instagram feed here.

Are Small Steps Everyday Better Than a Big Push Once in a While?

In the first 30 years of your life, you make your habits. For the last 30 years of your life, your habits make you. — Hindu saying that Steve Jobs was fond of 

I tend to circle topics until I get a satisfactory answer – something that makes sense to me, is actionable or is a definitive end. It’s a funny trait that I didn’t realize I did until someone pointed it out to me recently. One of those topics is how to learn. I’ll certainly come back to this a few times here.

I was thinking about a story that I read in the book Art & Fear about a pottery class that was split into two. One group was told that their grade would be based on the quantity of work that they produce during the semester while the other group would be graded on the quality of work they produced. At the end of the semester the group that produced the most work also produced work of a higher quality. The act of making, making mistakes, correcting and making again had lead to a deeper understanding.

How can we apply this thinking to our photography to push ourselves forward? I am contemplating a project where I would post an image a day to Instagram and then review my progress at the end of a year. Would this spur me forward to actively create and finish more images? Would that help me get out of a rut and move me forward? I think it may be fun but would be an immense challenge for me. At the moment I rarely leave the house makes it a challenge or at least pushes me in a different direction.

Carrying a camera with me is not a habit that I need to adopt – my phone is always with me. I’m often mentally taking photographs – I still see the American flag, framed on 3 edges by fall leaves that I looked at for a week when I was dropping my daughter off at school but never took the photo – but I don’t take enough photos to be able to post one a day. Not yet anyway.

How about you do you carry a camera with you all the time and do ‘visual push-ups’ every day? Want to join me in the challenge? Need an accountability partner for your project? A year too long? How about a sprint? Everyday for a month? Let me know here or tag me on Instagram.

The Shoreditch Sketcher: Phil Dean

I thought that I would continue my exploration of Urban Sketchers today with Phil Dean, known as The Shoreditch Sketcher on Instagram . By the very nature – Urban – it’s a little outside of what I would consider to be my subject area but I enjoy the images and the process of making them.

I wanted to learn more about how Phil approaches his drawing and hopefully learn something that could help my drawing or photography so I purchased his book ‘Urban Drawing: Sketch Club’. The book provides an excellent tour of materials, how to get started and etiquette for working on the street. Then moves on to a series of lessons and associated exercises covering topics such as composition, perspective, contrast, tone, people and adding color.

I enjoyed Phil’s prompts for subjects with sketching potential: Your environment while you’re traveling; mundanity, locals sitting drinking coffee, students doing their laundry, a dog sitting under a table; architectural mayhem, architecture that tells the story of the city, contrasts of old and new and of course vistas.

The appeal to me of drawing over photography is being able to be selective about what you include in the scene or indeed move things around to suit your composition and intent. Interesting to hear Phil talk about this and that he doesn’t really do that and was shocked when one of his students moved subjects around in her composition. Where do you stand on this?

The discussion of perspective, which of course comes up in almost every book on drawing, has me thinking about how I use perspective or view point to tell the story or add depth and interest to a scene. More on this topic in the future once it has had time to percolate.

Check out more of Phil’s work on Instagram or on his website.

Print Your Work!

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I’ve been involved in a couple of conversations recently about the value of printing your work. With most of us now using digital in one form or another there’s an overwhelming temptation to let your photographs sit on the computer, or on the web in one place or another and not be printed.

There are a number of reasons that we could debate for printing – prints have historically been the archival record – when the house is burning down you’re not going to run in and save your server, network attached storage or desktop computer in the way that you might have saved the family photo album. I’m sure everyone has their work backed up both in the cloud and physical drives at a secure distant location so this is less of a concern.

I would argue that printing does make you a better photographer though, whether your intended output is for the web or not. Prints are less forgiving than web and so you have to get it right, sharp where sharp is needed and appropriate and a file that is large enough to support the print size which forces you to ‘get it right in camera’

Even though the cost of ink jet printers has dropped substantially and the resources for obtaining a good print increased in equal fashion, making it quite possible to make good prints yourself at home, there are a number of companies that will make the prints for you. I was experimenting with the print service from Artifact Uprising while I was in Japan recently.

As I mentioned previously I’ve been using my iPhone camera as a tool to help me break out of the rut that I’ve felt that I’m in. I thought that If I could take 250 images that I like over the course of the year it ought to be possible to cull those to make a 50 image book as a record of the year. I’d heard good things about Artifact Uprising and wanted to try them out before I got to the book stage.

One morning while I was in Japan recently I had a few moments to kill and so I uploaded 5 or so images that I’d posted to instagram to the artifact uprising site using their mobile app and ordered a pack of prints. The whole operation took less than five minutes. When I got home from Japan I had a stack of amazing prints (5×5) on really heavy paper stock that I could handout to friends and family and to have as a record of the trip.

Not big prints for sure but a fun way to get my images off my phone and for me to start to look at them and really think about how they work as images. Give it a go, you won’t be disappointed.

Permission to Play

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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.