Life at 50

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Life at 50… 50 mm that is.

I am continually pulled by the latest and greatest piece of gear. Recently I was taken with the absolute need for one of the fancy point and shoot cameras to make sure that I always have a camera with me.

I generally do have my DSLR with me but the 24-105 lens that is often attached makes it bulky and less than discrete. I was looking for something a little more subtle. What I ended up doing was putting on my 50 mm and shooting with that for a week. I hadn’t used the 50 mm in a long time and was pleased with the results.

My 50 mm is f1.4, not the fastest 50 but fast, and certainly faster than most of my other lenses that top out at f4. Playing with the lens wide open had been fun. The background blur in portraits has, for want of a better term, a creamy smoothness to it. Much different to what I’m used to with the 24-105. It also has a very shallow depth of field which gives rise to interesting effects such as in the image above.

What pieces of gear do you have that’s languishing at the bottom of your bag? Dig it out and have some fun. You never know where it might lead.

My 5 Keys to A Great Workshop Experience

My recent experience at Art Wolfe’s Olympic Peninsula Workshop, while not bad per se, led me to reflect on what my ideal workshop would look like. My goals for any workshop are to have fun, make friends, learn something and if I get some photographs that I like so much the better. With that in mind here’s what i came up with.

I prefer relatively small groups

The reason for this is two fold. I want to get to know the people that I’m with for the duration of the workshop. Some of these folks often know more about the technical aspects of photography, or the software than the instructor does. Handy to know these people.

I want to get to know the instructor and allow the instructor to know me.
I feel like this can only be a good thing when it comes to learning and overcoming challenges that I’m dealing with.

Daily critiques of new work
While it can be painful, I find that daily critique of the images that the group has created is a powerful tool to improve the standard of the work that the whole group does. Which leads to the next point.

I want to feel safe enough to step outside of my comfort zoneOne of the things that workshops afford us is the opportunity to try things and quite likely fail spectacularly. I’m not likely to do this or at least share the results of my experiments if I don’t feel safe.

I don’t want to be rushed
Workshops are a funny vehicle for learning. Often you are sprinted from one location to the next without an opportunity to return and put what you’ve learned into practice. I completely understand the ‘photo tour’ aspect of many workshops and this is great if you intend on returning to select locations on your own to fully work through the photo possibilities that it offers. Otherwise I prefer at least similar locations that would allow me to refine my thinking about how to approach particular subjects.

What would help make the ideal workshop experience for you? Leave your suggestions in the comments section.

In Service of the Print

Winter Trees

‘Not every printer is a great photographer, every great photographer is a great printer’

Ansel Adams

I came across the quote attributed to Ansel Adams a couple of weeks ago and couldn’t help but wonder whether this is really true today. There have been seismic changes in photography and technology in the last 10 or so years – the shift to digital, decent cameras in most mobile phones, great tablet devices and on and on – that makes me wonder what was true when Ansel Adams made his comment is still true today.

How many people feel the need to print? Sure not people who are stock photographers. They deliver their content to the stock agencies digitally and it is further distributed digitally. Wedding photographers? Again another example of a group that are focused on high quality with high productivity, that would most likely today have some if not all content delivered digitally with the remaining photographs and associated wedding books printed by specialty print services. Editorial photographers, similar story – digital delivery to their editors.

Does this mean that these photographers are not ‘great’? Of course not. The successful photographers in these fields have exacting standards that when coupled with creativity and a capacity for hard work has been the foundation for their success.

So is Ansel’s comment still relevant today? I think so but we should modify it slightly – ‘Every great fine art photographer is a great printer’.

It’s never been easier to print your own photographs. Prices of really good ink jet prints have dropped precipitously and are well within the range of most serious amateurs. There are a huge range of ‘substrates’, papers and other specialty surfaces, available for printing. The standard printer drivers and paper profiles give good results without needing tweaking. Finally there are a tremendous range of resources available to help you along the way – George DeWolfe’s Book ‘George DeWolfe’s Digital Photography Fine Print Workshop‘ is one that I would particularly recommend. It’s quite possible then for us all to make good prints and with a commitment to the craft even some great ones.

The Circular Journey from Vision to Print

It struck me over the weekend that the path to realizing our vision, whether that’s on the computer monitor or on paper for the old school folks, is circular. I’ve been mulling over technical skills and aesthetic choices over the last couple of weeks resulting in the postings last week regarding conversion to black and white and also getting a better understanding of our sense of aesthetics. The final image to me then is a result of combining these with creativity. Simply put:

Realized Vision = Aesthetic Choices + Creativity + Technical Skills

I often feel that many of the initial photographs in a series are the result of happy accidents, either in the field when I just try something for the sake of it or when I’m back in front of the computer when again I play the game of ‘what happens if I do ….’. Taking that experience and then repeating it in different circumstances and situations then allows me to build that series. Whether it’s playing around with toy camera effects, shooting in black and white, or shooting long exposures all have been informed by what’s gone before. Having a better sense of the possibilities, particularly for post-processing of my images, means that I am ever more aware of possibilities for my photography.

Connecting with Your Voice

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I thought that it would be interesting to share here a pair of exercises that I did recently and one that I have continued with that is intended to help connect you with your story, your voice and your aesthetic.

As I mentioned previously we all see the world in a unique way and as a result we all have a different and interesting story to tell. One of the difficulties is owning that and being true to what you have to say.

Many of us haven’t spent the time to explicitly say – these are the things that attract me, these are the things that repel me, these are the things that I find energizing, these are the things that I find draining, these are the places that I feel most comfortable and in these places I feel uncomfortable.  Exercise 1 – go do that!  Carry a notebook around with you and make notes about where you are and why you’re responding in a particular way.

If that is the first exercise then the second is to acknowledge what photographers produce work that attracts and which produce work that repels you. Broaden that to include other visual artists, to designers – furniture etc., Then ask the question why they appeal or repel? Finally how is this aesthetic captured in your work.

Taking time to do these relatively simple exercises has helped shape my thinking about what I photograph and why. I suspect it may for you too.

Black & White or Color?

Black & white or color? This is not usually a question for me, I don’t see the world in black and white I see in color. Strong vibrant colors are what capture my attention and are what make getting up for sunrise worthwhile. However, I am increasingly finding that there are times when black and white seems better suited to what’s in front of me. The image above is a great example – it was quite a stormy morning, with impressive light on the horizon. When I took the photo it was with black and white in mind, there was very little color in any case. Which got me wondering, other than the obvious images where there’s little color anyway, how to choose between black and white and color? I could imagine wanting to use black and white when color is not important to the photograph, when it’s a distraction and when you want to emphasize texture.

When would you choose black and white over color? Why?

Write a Page a Day and You’ll Have a Book in a Year

I recently came across the following quote from Thea Astley:

‘If you write a page a day it adds up to a book in a year’

I like the idea here – steady and consistent progress will get you over the finish line. For photographers what does this mean? I think as it is for writers, doing something every day on your project will mean that eventually you’ll have a real and tangible product.

One of the harder tasks for us as photographers is being able to work on our project everyday, especially when we have the weather to contend with or difficult schedules to work around. I use the ‘Natural Planning Model’ that David Allen describes in his ‘Getting Things Done‘ book to go through and break out all of the tasks that a project involves. The natural planning model involves 5 basic steps:

1. Defining purpose and principles
2. Outcome visioning
3. Brainstorming
4. Organizing
5. Identifying next actions

Hear David Allen talk more about this by clicking below:

This allows me to generate an an inventory of everything that I could be doing to move my project along.

Using the book project that I’m working on at the moment as an example – assuming that the shooting will take care of itself, there are still lots of decisions around everything else to be made:

Self-publish?
What company?
Physical size of the book?
Hardback or Paperback?
eBook?
How many images?
Sequencing?
Introduction?
Other essays?
Thubnails at the end?
Shot information?

Once each of these questions has been answered there is then the obligatory question of ‘What’s the next step?’ Using this approach I have a laundry list of things that I can be doing when I’m not shooting to help help keep the project moving forward and I’m sure that you would too.