Often I find that I am crunched for time, which means that I need to quickly process my images and get on to the next thing. Having a little bit of extra time to work on learning new techniques, how to use new equipment and then to integrate that into my everyday workflow is a real luxury.
Over the last six months or so I’ve been dabbling a little with both of these – learning about new masking techniques and how those can be used to composite images together to make large files that will be used to make large prints.
The image above is one that I had struggled with earlier in the year. I posted an earlier version of this image here. With a little bit of extra time over the Christmas break I was able to play a little, make some composites and finally get close to the image I had felt when I was there.
I very much enjoy seeing how other artists work, the spaces that they work in and to delve deeper into the process behind the things that they create. At the same time I’m looking and listening for cues that explain what they’ve just created. The secret decoder ring that answers the question ‘what does it mean’?
I’ve had little to no academic training in art – I will exempt the photography workshops and classes that I’ve taken from ‘formal academic training’ – and so understanding what the art world is all about is something of a mystery. Art history, like history in general, is something that I thought to be dry and dull and not worth a second look.
However I keep hacking away and occasionally will have break throughs, or at least will find an answer that is spoon fed to me. This is exactly what happened in my research of the work of Wynn Bullock. If you dig hard enough you can find discussion of the four major principals that governed his work:
1. Space-Time – seeing the true quality of things are recognizing their relationship and interrelatedness with other events
2. Opposites are one – you can’t have ‘up’ without ‘down’, ‘rough’ without ‘smooth’, ‘joy’ without ‘sorrow’
3. Reality and Existence – the known and the unknown
4. Ordering and things ordered coexist yet have independent significance – Ordering represents activities of the senses and the mind. ‘Things ordered’ are those things that result in the stimuli that we respond to.
if you then look at the work with these principals as a guide you can start to understand what he was driving at and judge for yourself did he hit the mark or not.
I’m back home again after a a family holiday at the beach. I don’t know how you travel but for us we always have somewhere to be and while our trips may take us through gorgeous parts of the country we’re always too time crunched to stop to explore. As we zipped across Shelter Island, somewhere I’d like to explore further, the image at the top of the page came to mind. It’s a view across Crescent Lake. I was obviously drawn to the reflections in the mirror smooth lake. At the time I was zipping down to Forks but decided that since there wasn’t any pressure to be in Forks at a particular hour I’d stop. I spent probably 20 or 30 mins photographing at this spot, working out of the back of my car with the music blaring. Most certainly a good time. I never saw the lake flat enough any other time during my visit to the Olympic National Park for this kind of reflection. If I’d done what I was thinking which was to ‘get it on the way back’ the shot wouldn’t have been there.
What was also cool was another photographer pulled in behind me and introduced himself – Jack Graham – a very familiar name to me. I’d looked at his guide to photographing in washington state and at his workshops as part of my researching potential ONP workshops. At the time I ended up going with Art Wolfe but having met Jack and emailed him a few times afterwards I’d recommend his workshops any day.
This experience not only underscores the need to get the shot when you can but also that by getting off the usual rails that we run on we may stumbling into interesting opportunities.
Getting basic techniques down and being able to replicate photographs that others have made is all well and good. But how do you advance beyond that to make photographs that are unique, that express your unique vision.
Many people use the struggles and creative processes of writers to help guide the photography path. Skeptical? Take a look at Stephen King’s book ‘On Writing‘ and change his mention of writing for photography and you’ll see what I mean.
My development as a photographer has paralleled the way I learned to play the guitar. I spent many hours learning how to play songs and even more time how to play blues riffs. At first this was following along with instructional books and CDs, as an aside David Hamburger and Dave Rubin produced some phenomenal instructional books and CDs, and then later working out riffs for myself from the CDs that I had. This let me build up a series of phrases that I could be dropped into either my own songs or the songs of others, in many ways like learning elements of photographic technique that will later be pieced together to make an image.
For both writing and learning to play the guitar there comes a point where progression comes from studying the work of others. Either reading more in the case of writing or listening more when it comes to learning an instrument. The same is true for photography. We’re surrounded by images but I suspect that few of us take the time to really look at them, to really see. When was the last time you went to an exhibition of photography or painting? When was the last time that you pulled one of your coffee table photography books down and spent 10 minutes looking at a single image?
If you’re like me, more engineer than artist, perhaps part of the reason is that you don’t have the language to describe what your seeing and you could argue if we could use words we’d be writers. The very act however of simply describing the image in front of you is enormously useful first step in becoming comfortable with describing photographs and identifying elements within them that you could use in your own photography. The more time you spend looking at other photographs the more photographs you’ll see when you have your camera in hand.
So how to start? Start with a very basic description: What is it a photograph of? Color or black & white? Shape of the frame? Where was it taken? When was it taken? How was it taken? Then go beyond the basics: Why was it taken? How does it make you feel?
I’d be interested in your feedback and comments if you run through this exercise with the image above.
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.
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.