Notes From The Road

´╗┐´╗┐After two weeks of dealing with an virus that went through our household decimating everything in it’s path I’m finally getting back to something like normal. It’s interesting to me how presumably the same virus can manifest itself differently, shining a light on your weaknesses? My son and I both had respiratory problems which involved a trip to the hospital for him and a lingering shortness of breath for me. I’m still winded doing the simplest of tasks, even something as simple as walking feels like I’ve just done something strenuous. Hopefully it won’t last for too much longer.

I’m once again on the road. It was fun to see Massachusetts and all the snow that we’ve had this winter from the air. I was surprised that there wasn’t more ice in the bay but I should be careful what I wish for!

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.

New York, New York!

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I was in New York recently – what an amazing place. More vibrant at 10.30 pm than 2 pm.

I’m thinking about community this week – who listens when you talk, supports you when you need to be supported, and kicks you in the pants when you need to be spurred on to be as good as you can be?

Resources for Time Management

I’ve been experimenting with some new tools for time management that I think are interesting and well worth sharing. I think that I’ve mentioned before that I use a hybrid of David Allen’sGetting Things Done‘ system, J.D. Meier’s ‘Getting Results the Agile Way‘ and the tools Peter Bregman describes in ‘18 Minutes‘.

What do I use from what? I use GTD as the overall scaffolding for my approach this includes both the action lists, next step thinking as well as the horizons of focus. Peter Bregman’s book and J.D. Meier’s overlap somewhat. Both ask that you consider – what is this year about? and what is this day about? – in an effort to make sure that you have your attention on the things that matter the most. Working between these three books you should have a good sense of the big picture – Work, Relationships, Family and Self Development – and how what you’re going to do in the coming year supports each of these.

There are some useful templates from Peter Bregman here and from JD Meier here. Check out this link for a guided 30 day introduction to JD Meier’s methodology.

I live and die by my calendar and have been experimenting with a new calendar app on the iPhone and iPad called ‘Tempo’. Definitely a step up from the calendar app that comes preinstalled.

List managers are a bit trickier. I’ve tried lots including lists in evernote which works quite well – I do like the fact that evernote syncs everywhere but I seem to be settling on ‘Things’ which is about as complicated as I want my list manager to be. Another one worth exploring is ‘2Do’.

I’d be interested in hearing what approach you follow for increasing your productivity and what are your favorite apps productivity/time management apps. Add your voice to the comments below.

Gear Lust & Chasing the Look

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I’m often sucked into the vortex that is lusting after new gear. While there is something to be said for the improvements in technology i’m more often that not thinking about larger format cameras – Hasselblad 503C and the Linhof Techno. While thinking about these I entertain the notion of a digital back but in reality I’m thinking about what people have created with these and similar cameras using film.

It took a while but it finally dawned on me that what I’m hankering after is not necessarily the gear but the look that is created. The look of course is in part gear dependent since each of these cameras has a unique mechanism, good but different lenses, that I’m sure but can’t prove to you today that have a unique look to them, and then of course there’s the film that imparts a certain look too. Camera body, lens and film all give a distinctive look as do the choices made after capture, the choices made during development of chemistry and paper.

For a while most of the images that I shot with my iPhone were processed to give a ‘lomography look’ to them and I did entertain for a while getting a loom film camera but at the same time thought that I ought to be able to create that look digitally with the camera that I already have. More recently I’ve been taking gritty black and white images with my iPhone and again felt that I ought to be able to achieve a similar effect with the DSLR that I already have. The image above is a first attempt. I’d be interested in your thoughts. I’m chasing the look, just with the tools that I already have to hand.

A Commitment to Becoming a Better Photographer

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To follow up on my previous post I thought that I’d share some of the things that I’d done to improve my photography and hopefully they may be useful to you. At the time I did all of this stuff I felt that I was a late starter and wanted to accelerate my learning as much as I could. This meant using the expertise and experience of photographers that I liked to quickly get a solid foundation. Please do chime in with your thoughts and comments too.

1. Find your true calling. Work out what appeals to you, what repels you. Start a scrap book real or virtual of images that appeal to you. Make a list of common attributes – color or black and white, landscape, portraiture, wildlife, fashion, wedding, dig a bit deeper what else do these have in common, what differentiates them.

2. Find a mentor. Have you found yourself gravitating to one or two photographers? Study what they’ve done and how they got the shots you particularly admire. Of course if they’re alive today they probably teaching workshops – take a workshop with them and get some advice from your photographic hero. Not only will you get some insight into how they achieve their signature works but you’ll also get some feedback on your own work.

3. Get the right gear. Figuring out what gear your heros are using to get the shots you admire and get the same stuff. Somethings you’ll want to buy now, others you should rent. But without getting the gear to get the shot you won’t get the shot. A good example for landscape photographers is a rock solid tripod – get a good one and it will last you for years.

4. Do what your heros do to get the shot. When I was at Alison Shaw’s Workshop on Martha’s Vineyard in 2009 I was bemoaning my lack of progress to Alison’s assistant Donna Foster. Donna quickly pointed out that there was a progression to my work but that my biggest problem was that I wasn’t shooting in the best light and that if I wanted to improve I should find some time to get out early or late and shoot when the light is good.

5. Get feedback on your work. There are a number of ways to get comments on your work I prefer one on one portfolio reviews with someone who is going to be brutally frank. Feedback from workshop instructors is also very useful, as can be comments from friends whose opinion you trust and value.

I hope that you found this useful. I’d be delighted to hear what you’ve done to improve.

Getter Better All The Time . . . Couldn’t Get Much Worse

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I’ve been thinking about learning in the last couple of weeks and have become increasing comfortable with the notion that 20% of our efforts give 80% of the results, or knowing 20% of something can get you 80% of the way there. For many people this is good enough, with the disproportionate amount of effort it takes to go the last 20% of the way not worth the effort it takes.

For the longest time I wanted to take better photographs without really a notion of what better really meant. Even now I’m not sure what better really means but I’ve settled on it being sufficiently skilled that I can conceive of an image and realise that in the final image. I’ve started to realize that for me this is a little bit like looking for the end of a rainbow. What I’ve found is that the more skilled that I become, the more that the technical stuff falls away allowing me to spend time on the artistic piece, the further and harder I push. What was difficult becomes easy and uninteresting. The new challenge is the thing that stretches and tests your abilities both technically and artistically. Failure, frustration and disappointment remain part of your everyday existence. Perhaps those failures become more spectacular as your skills develop and you try and push to bigger things. But failure remains a constant, intermingled with some successes and it’s those successes that make it all worthwhile.

So how to get better when better remains an unachievable goal. There are of course stages to this growth. Arguably imitation is the foundation of all that we do. We look at those artists that are making the kind of work that we’re interesting in and ask the question how do they do it. We work the technical side of things and figure out how they did what it was that attracted us and make servicable copies of the work of the masters. Great examples of this are the multitude of photographers that make the pilgrimage to Yosemite each year to make their own copy of Ansel Adams great photographs. That’s pretty cool – execute one of these photographs immaculately and you’ve got a pretty nice looking photograph that your friends and family will most certainly coo over.

I would argue that the next phase is to build a familiarity with the things that appeal to you. This covers the gambit of design sensibilities, aesthetic qualities in everyday life – furniture, tools that you use everyday – computers kitchen gear, dishwear, cutlery etc. as well as becoming encyclopedic in your familiarity with the medium that you work in – landscape photography, portrature, etc. and perhaps digging depper to sub specialties such as water in the landscape.

The final and perhaps hardest step then is to combine the technical and the artistic to create something that is truely your own.

I’m going to unpack my thoughts around getting better over the next few weeks. Comments appreciated as always. Thoughts on the 80/20 rule in relation to skill development? I’d love to hear them.

The Value in Competition?

It’s been a big few days for sport here in Boston. Friday was the first home game for the Red Sox and today is the Boston Marathon.

Fitting then that I had a conversation at the end of last week about the sport of photo competitions. If we ignore all the flat out bad things about photo competitions – that they are money earners for the organizations that are running them (not strictly bad) and attempt to get royalty free images – are they useful?

You could argue that competitions give you an opportunity to judge your work against that of others and also that this is also an effective way to market your work and build an audience. I would say no on all points. Art is subjective, ask three people and you’ll get three different answers. Competitions can be an effective way to get your work out to a broad audience, that is, if you win. Otherwise there’s probably not a lot of value in it.

It’s always nice to win, for some this is more important than it is for others,

Competitions bring out the worst in me. In a competitive situation I want to win and will do whatever it takes to win. I don’t think that this is terribly useful when it comes to fine art photography where the goal, or at least my goal, is to effectively capture my emotional response to the scene in front of me or to make the image that’s in my head. As soon as I start thinking about what it takes to make a successful image before I’ve made it then I’m not going to be true to myself.

I don’t view fine art photography as a competitive sport. For me it’s much better to use your own work to benchmark against, a little like the runner who is interested in personal best time, but to do that after the fact. After you’ve made the image and worked it up. Then see how it fits with the rest of what you’ve done and whether this meets the standard you’ve set for yourself.

Competitions aren’t an end game for me. I may enter the occasional competition but it will be will photographs that I made for myself not with the competition in mind. What’s your position on competitions?

Competitions bring out the worst in me. In a competitive situation I want to win and will do whatever it takes to win. I don’t think that this is terribly useful when it comes to fine art photography where the goal, or at least my goal, is to effectively capture my emotional response to the scene in front of me or to make the image that’s in my head. As soon as I start thinking about what it takes to make a successful image before I’ve made it then I’m not going to be true to myself.