The Skinny on Shooting ‘Fat’!

Old Course, St Andrews

Less than a decade ago the average National Geographic assignment would produce approximately 500-800 rolls of exposed film over a 2-4 week period. This translates to about 18,000 – 28,800 frames for a layout in the magazine that will publish only 10-15 photographs for the endeavor. Those images that are chosen owe at least some of their existence to the images that did not survive the edit, but were an integral part of the process that produces the great photographs of NG Magazine  Where a photographer would pack 50+ bricks of film on assignment, they now carry a fistful of 8-16 GB memory cards, a laptop for downloads and editing and a back-up hard drive for insurance. The volume of photographs are limitless with digital memory, so why are people still conservative when photographing with this reusable resource.

Professional photographers, on average, consider maybe 1.5%  to 1.7% of their images will be keepers. At last years Superbowl ,  approximately 16.000 images were shot by 12 photographers for Sports illustrated and only 75 were considered SI quality. Getting the great photos is a game of percentages and odds. You’re only after that one great image,  you may capture it in the first few shots or it may show-up after an hour of working the subject through.  When shooting ‘fat’ you are not aiming for a specific number of frames but rather resisting giving yourself a limit.  Ansel Adams is said to have left behind hundreds of negatives that he regarded as not up to his standards, just to get the few that embody his work as we know it. A good photographer is not measured by the volume of photos, but by the size of their computers Trash folder.

The mindset a ‘Fat’ shooter exercises allows them to work a situation to its fruition, explore every option and angle with a subject. This does not mean firing away randomly, hoping you catch something in the lens. There is never only one definitive way of photographing anything. I have seen new photos of many famous places and people where the photographer engaged the subject with a fresh approach, capturing a moment, emotion or scene in an interesting and unique way. This is not accomplished by sacrificing just a couple of  frames here and there, but by shooting with a blind eye for anything but your subject. Resist packing-up until you ask yourself what else you could do here and now, instead of wishing you had shot more later. A good photographer could shoot less frames to capture great photos, but doesn’t. Not letting-up until your camera won’t shoot only to realize the memory card is full, then continuing the shoot on another card puts you in the zone where outstanding photographs dwell. I am no stranger to quick in-camera edits when I have used all the memory available to me and still want more. Thankfully memory is relatively cheap and a 16 GB card is the same size as 8 GB in your pocket. If you let yourself become absorbed in the process it allows your mind to see and identify new possibilities and focus on little else until you are satisfied with your efforts or out of memory again.

There are those who choose to shoot JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) files to maximize the amount of images that can be acquired. The Jpeg does have the advantage of smaller files, sufficient quality for many applications, are more easily transmitted and suit photographers with neither the time or inclination for post processing files. The downside is your photography will always fall short of the images potential. Then there are those not willing to shoot more than a couple frames of anything, usually from the same position and perspective. Somehow the idea of maximizing the quantity of captures available yet hording empty memory space, like it was a scarce commodity, is becoming commonplace, when the opposite could not be truer.

Why RAW (unprocessed digital negatives) instead of JPEG ? First, with digital memory there is no difference in cost to the user while they benefits are substantial in post processing. Of most importance is the fact that a JPEG is a degenerative file which discards information immediately to create smaller file sizes, while a TIFF (Tagged Image File Format), from a RAW file conversion is not a compressed file and contains all the data that the cameras chip recorded plus some additional information tagged on (i.e. sharp, settings) from the initial capture. What this means to a pro or serious amateur photographer is that in post he will have 65,536 levels of brightness with a 16 bit TIFF (from RAW) versus 256 level of brightness with a JPEG file, which the camera converts to 8 bit mode to reduce the files size. This is extremely important when working with shadows and highlights in any significant way. The bottom line is you can always convert a TIFF to a JPEG if you need to reduce the file size, but by shooting RAW you will have the advantage of working the image with all the information the camera initially recorded.

If you are going to shoot ‘fat’, editing is a necessary and vital part of the photography process.  A heavy shoot will increase the chance of capturing that one great photo and strong editing skills will allow you to process large volumes of images to find those gems in the rough. The hiking society I am affiliated with has a website where members can upload photos from hikes they attend. There are a few who shoot plenty of frames, 150 -200, but insist on uploading the entire unedited camera onto the website while most members upload an average of 10 select images. Members who log in to view the event photos are quickly overwhelmed with 250-300 photos. A seemingly endless barrage of boring repetitive images that bury interesting creative photography within it. Most ,including myself , can’t endure looking further than 20, as the essence of the event is lost. If the best were being saved for last they would never be seen. Less is more when you are trying to show your skills as a photographer, but to have a few great images sometimes requires shooting past the line most are content to stop at, selecting the few that stand out and deleting or archiving the rest. It takes less than 3 seconds to formulate an opinion of a photo and less than 10 images to evaluate the photographers skill and creativity. The saying, ‘your only as good as your worst shot’, is good advice before you seek viewers time.

The editing process has also been streamlined with software specific to the editing task. Although every photographer has there own work flow most will do a quick pre-edit, rotating images and quickly selecting, or flagging, those that immediately draw attention or were of importance. The second edit is where flagged images are opened and scrutinized, while similar photos are compared to further reduce the collection. Being your own worst critic is a tough hat to wear when editing your own work, but if can see some direction from the rejected images it is not all in vain.

How many times have we had to view someones unedited photos only to hear excuses like, ‘I don’t know why that ones there’, or ‘those are just more of the same’. It is only with an audience that these photographers suddenly realize we do not want to see uninspiring photography. The aim is to be able to show your best, not your best 10, then 30 satisfactory photos followed by 50 bad ones. To leave them wanting more rather than a poor opinion of your editing and photography skills. If you’re going to show a bad image to your viewers, in their eyes, you must think it’s good. You will be judged, better to do it to yourself while editing instead of by others later.

The skinny is to allow yourself the opportunity for great photography by utilizing all that is available to you to make the photos that deserve to be seen. Most of the shots that survive the edit are not frames one or two but images captured later when you engaged the subject from a different angle. See the opportunities and commit the time and digital memory necessary to maximize and exhaust your skills and creativity. Edit. Then edit again, and finally edit again honestly. If it’s not interesting now it won’t be any better when you show it to others.

Make it RAW! Shoot it ‘Fat’ and trim it later.

“I am always satisfied with the best.” -Oscar Wilde

Choosing to be ‘Lucky’!

old mill, italy

I believe every point in ones life is arrived at through a series of choices each of us makes either consciously or subconsciously.  That opportunities arise when we are making the choices that deliberately put us onto the paths we are destined to take. Choosing to wait for the moments to arrive is allowing yourself the excuse that it just wasn’t in the cards rather than taking the deck and dealing yourself a hand. But you must learn the skills to play the game right. Taking a path that is not your calling will eventually lead to  excuses, resistance from within and wrong choices. Listen to your inner voice and choose wisely.

Luck has nothing to do with ones ability to be at the right place and the right time when the images you seek to capture become reality consistently. Dedication, discipline, instinct and subject knowledge, when applied, make great images. There will always be ‘one hit wonders’ in careers requiring a level of skill and creative talent. Repetition of a skill and creativity, or style, deserves recognition beyond simply ‘luck’. Do you think Sidney Crosby would be called a great hockey player if his only goal was during the 2010 Olympics. It would still be a memorable goal but would lack consistency and Crosbys status could not be considered among the best to play the game.  We know otherwise that Sidney found his calling and learned to  play the game with dedication and discipline to his path and is rightfully considered one of the best in his field.

I make it a point every year to view a photo exhibit at the Calgary Stampede. A friend and old hiking buddy of mine exhibits his wildlife photography in the show. What was once a hobby has now become a passion and career. I am amazed by comments from viewers  lacking an appreciation of the skills required beyond technical mastery, some credit the cameras abilities more than the photographers. It does not register that there is a dedication to knowing when, where and how a subject can best be captured and the discipline to make sure you ‘re there for that moment regardless of how many trips it might take. I have been to locations over and over again to get the image I have in my head transferred to the camera. When it all finally comes together and I have captured the image I had imagined to the best of my ability I am satisfied, but only for the moment.

When taking groups out hiking in the mountains I prefer to start the hikes as early as possible, some 5 am. This in itself deters some who can’t grasp getting up so early for photography. Those that do make the commitment are amazed at just how different everything looks. Their eyes open a little wider with a glimpse into the career of a  professional photographer. The difference between a dedicated professional and an amateur lies in the mastering of skills, an understanding of the subject and the vision to make exceptional photographs by placing themselves right where they want to be. Never accepting that this is the best you can do or are willing to do with a subject. Be it a landscape, sports, wildlife, editorial or portrait. The business of photography and the hobby share many commonalities except that a professional must make a living in photography while an amateur does not.

Accept the fact that a camera and lens are just tools, like a brush, piano or canvas. By themselves they are not art but with knowledge and creativity the photographer can produce images to be admired for a lifetime. As photographers we fine tune our visual senses to see the world with our eyes wide open. Much like a musician or singer strives to have perfect pitch. To be tone deaf for a photographer would be akin to ‘never seeing the forest for the trees’, when the trees are the photograph.

As with most things, the more you do something the less conscious you become of actually doing it. Visual skills become a part of your subconscious. When teaching students, the leap forward comes when they start seeing the finished image in their mind before the photo is taken. The ‘minds eye’ seeing the focal point, foreground, leading lines, framing, textures, rule of thirds and quality of light not as rules spelled out in a book but as an auto response to the visual sense that stops you and triggers you to raise your camera.

To me a photograph is like a recipe. The type of dishes vary with taste. Some recipes are tried and true, some can be made numerous ways with a combination of different portions of ingredients and still be tasty. Most will attempt to create mouthwatering photographs but leave out key ingredients and have less than palatable results. There are no rules to photography just guidelines that when applied in varying degrees have proven to produce appealing images when mixed with a few tablespoons of creativity.

The real secret that a professional photographer knows is that it is not the actual photographing that is hard, it’s putting yourself where you need to be when you take it and resisting any thoughts that will distract you from that goal.

For the record. Lucky, is the guy who happens to show-up by chance where you ‘chose’ to be one day.

There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are. Ernst Haas

Sidney Crosby's winning goal, Courtesy CP

Light is knowledge

LaCaille Penthouse

I spent a good portion of my career as a photojournalist mastering the lighting of assignments without knowing the locations lighting constraints or time I would be allotted to produce a professional photograph for publication. Daily newspapers provided considerably more stress than magazine deadlines, sometimes scheduling conflicts and unrealistic expectations can add pressure to complete assignments on-time regardless of the publication dates.

The ability to quickly scan your surroundings and literally ‘see the light’, or absence of , and adapt is a necessary and vital tool when time constraints work against you. A good photojournalist has a large repertoire of mental lighting set-ups available in their arsenal to fit each assignment and situation they may be confronted with. This also implies that you ‘learned from your mistakes’ and recognize scenarios that do not work.The best approach is to keep it simple, in relation to the time you are given, so you can spend as much time shooting the subject as possible if time is not on your side. This may be flash on or off camera when time dictates or two lights adding more creative set-ups when time allows. Once a few images are captured you can then afford the luxury of tweaking or adding lighting and using what time is left to build on the images you already have. Life is not always fair to photographers needs but your results are expected to be professional none the less so every second counts.

The old adage less is more works in most situations. The less time you spend setting-up the more time you have to shoot and using less lighting allows a more natural feel. Lighting can portray mood and texture to a photograph depending on angle and intensity of each source. A subtle shadow can say a lot about a photo. Everyone will eventually develop a style of their own. I look and feel that is their signature, recognizable as a style not the lack of.

Every interior I have had to shoot required a slightly different or radically new approach. No two rooms are exactly the same. To apply one standard set-up to every interior would be like putting ketchup on everything until finally a plate of French fries was placed in front of you. Approach everything with a blank lighting canvas with  past experience and lights as your palette. If forced to speed paint or time create a masterpiece you can adjust your style to the situation.

Natural or ambient light is the first source of light I try to utilize in most photos either as a main, fill or backlight. Unlike daylight, ambient light can be mixed lighting , daylight, tungsten or fluorescent. A sturdy tripod will allow you to use both natural daylight and ambient mixed light without sacrificing either depth of field or low ISO. A tripod is an essential part of my approach when lighting. Always try to balance the room with one light source or mixed lighting that compliments one another. Todays environmentally friendly CFL (Compact Fluorescent Lights) do not compliment mixed lighting and should be changed to standard tungsten when photographing.

Food photography lighting should be minimal with attention paid to both texture and detail. Generally I will use one main light source and a reflector for fill. A good tip is to use an identical empty plate to compose and light your photo. When the chef brings the plated dish switch the plates and shoot.

Whatever the subject, portrait, architectual or food the best advice is to remember that great photographs are a combination of light sources and fill or highlights and shadows. That lighting angles and intensity create the mood, textures and dimension in photography. That in a perfect world every photo would get as much time as it required and you would never feel rushed. Until that day keep your flashes charged, softboxes handy and a tripod on the floor.

There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.…… Ansel Adams


The harmony of rock and water.

490U0063 Sept 6-20 HP 1080pxI have always enjoyed  photographing rock formations, giant boulders, slabs of weathered ancient marble, canyons, rivers and streams. I think I first realized it on a trip to Italy where I found myself in Carerra. They still mine marble in quarries up in the mountains. I spent some time shooting old scarred pieces of marble that fascinated me. The photograph I produced is till a personal favourite of mine today.

I do quite a bit of hiking in the Canadian Rockies year round and have an abundance of mountain and valleys to satisfy my mild fetish for ‘rock and water’ any many more yet to be discovered. With most adventures I am only able to take a preliminary shot and return when the lighting has the quality I seek to capture the vision in my minds eye. That photograph waiting to be dug out of the landscape and polished to perfection.

Water is a humbling force in nature, carving canyons out of rock with a sheer will to travel downstream, yet soft and fluid to the touch. It smooths, polishes, exposes, gorges ever deepening the scar as it continues it’s journey. Rock slowly begins to reveal its many layers, colors and hues as it is eroded away over thousands of years.  To me the rock, in all its forms provides the face, shadows, shapes and dimension necessary in sculpting my image.  The water provides flow and motion in contrast. be it from a stream a raging river or a shoreline, adding the direction and feel to the photograph. Water takes on many moods in the hands of a skilled photographer with a vision. The result to me is a photograph with both soft and hard edges, smooth and rough textures and a quality of light that nurtures the subtle warm colors hidden within the scene. With the application of creativity, skill and dedication I am able to put myself exactly where and when my vision can be fulfilled.

Arriving at a location, that may be anywhere from 2-8 kilometers away, for first light can be a bit unsettling when it requires starting down a trail in the dark while traveling in grizzly bear country. Note to self:  Add ‘fear factor’ into the pricing of the prints. I have taken to packing my fly fishing waders and boots as part of my outdoor arsenal, adding considerable bulk and weight to an already heavy backpack. Never will I be stuck on the shore when I know the shot is in the middle or opposite side of the stream or river. My personal payoff comes standing ready to shoot in the flowing water of a stream or river in a slot canyon as the sky begins to glow with the anticipation of sunrise,  no wind, only the sound of the water running out of the canyon. Okay, reality check, by this time my feet are getting a bit cold in glacier fed water and my coffee long gone. That inner voice, on particular days, lets you know you will come back with your photo. Everything in nature is cooperating, the alarm went off at 3 AM,  your truck didn’t break down and the fact that your gear is still dry and functioning makes it all worth while as you capture the first image. I tell friends that if I can come back with just one great photo I am content and consider the venture a success. They usually agree when they see the results of my efforts, but most are content to let me trek down the dark trails while they slumber. My day is usually done, my gear packed and I am already heading back to the trailhead when I greet the first hiker coming up the trail.

This year I have already accomplished much and amassed a shot list for next spring.  A few snowshoe trips in the coming months are already planned to locations that deserve a second look in a different season.

To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.Elliott Erwitt_MG_7284 Aug 15_20 HP WB 1080 px

Dry Darkroom vs Manipulation


Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Photo Wikimedia Commons


It is amazing how many people, in varying degrees of  photography, do not understand the difference between a dry (digital) darkroom and photo manipulation when it comes to the digital workflow of an image after the capture. Photography software, the dry darkroom, is an essential element of the professional photographer using digital image files as a means of replacing traditional ‘wet darkroom’ applications.

The ‘wet darkroom’ was a necessary step, and is still for some, of analog photography to achieve the end result. That being the best possible photograph the photographer could produce from an original work. The wet darkroom evolved over time with advances in film, chemistry, better enlargers and a broader range of papers available to the artist. The process involved to produce a print from film went far beyond simply exposing the film and although the technology has evolved the process still goes beyond simply capturing the image in a digital camera. The leap from analog to digital was a huge step for photography. The development of photography software to compliment the technology and enable the photographer is just as important to professional and serious amateurs alike.

Before digital photography, film was  the primary means used by analog photographers to transfer a vision to the camera. Light sensitive material, the film, was exposed and the process began. Development of the film was achieved with the use of a ‘wet darkroom’, wet because of the use of chemicals and dark because of the light sensitivity. Precise chemical mixing, timing and agitation are the science of the wet darkroom. Proper development combined with exposure would yield a negative with the desired amount of contrast. The negative (neg) is then placed in a carrier and into an enlarger. It is focused, for sharpness,  onto the base or easel on which the photography paper would be placed. Prior to the exposure onto the paper a series of chemical baths are prepared depending on the paper used and the type of print desired.. Filters  could be applied to the enlarger to enhance contrast of the print onto the paper. The neg is exposed with light onto the paper for a precise duration and intensity, the image can also be dodged (lighten) and burned (darken) in areas where the effect would enhance the overall photograph. Finally the paper is placed in a series of chemical baths to develop, stop, fix and wash the print.

Manipulation: Photo manipulation is the application of image editing techniques to photographs in order to create an illusion,  deception or mislead (in contrast to mere enhancement or correction), through analog or digital means. …

The first recorded case of photo manipulation was in the early 1860s, when a photo of Abraham Lincoln was altered using the body from a portrait of John C. Calhoun and the head of Lincoln from a famous seated portrait by Mathew Brady – the same portrait which was the basis for the original Lincoln Five-dollar bill. Computers and photography software have made it much easier for people to go beyond simply enhancing a digital file. Some create art through the deliberate manipulation of an image to the point where it does not resemble the original image. If the intent is not to mislead the viewer than it can be interpreted as art. Photography is meant to be fun for the masses and there are no rules or limits to what you can do with your images. Manipulation of photography only becomes an issue when the work is presented for interpretation as original photography either professionally as art or in the media as editorial. In the world of advertising, album covers, book jackets and the like a creative license is assumed and manipulation is expected to some degree.

There are photography enhancements used since the inception of photography that, although not as recognizable, are still acceptable, and expected, in the photography process. The adjustments of contrast, color correction, retouching portraits, spot removal, sharpening, filters (i.e. polarizing, color spectrum, neutral density), burning, dodging and cropping are all part of the history of photography. Converting a color file to black and white is acceptable since most digital cameras are incapable of shooting B&W files. Analog photographers would choose a specific film for different subjects because of it’s qualities. To people who refer to photography software as ‘cheating’ I explain that the image they have in the back of the digital camera is not finished, unless they want it to be. It would be akin to shooting rolls of film and not getting them developed. People unwilling to continue with the process are usually those who do not edit, rotate or crop their images before uploading them for the world to see. The benefit of continuing past the camera either eludes or seems like to much work and they will never produce photographs to there full potential only quick snapshots. Quitting the process when the project requires an effort is the waste product of such a fast paced technological society. Those who are unfamiliar with what is acceptable, and expected, and what is manipulation in the world of photography would benefit and grow as photographers by taking a course in photography software. Learning the skills to produce the best photograph from the images they’ve captured.

We will all draw our own lines with respect to what is standard acceptable photo enhancement and what constitutes photo manipulation. The conscience is a great deterrent to faking art.

“Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships”.  ~Ansel Adams


rooftops, Cortona, Italy

rooftops, Cortona, Italy


It’s inside you, not on the shelf!


South Beach, Tofino


Art: The expression and application of human skills and imagination.

Art is one of the beautiful things in life not conducive to the need for speed, immediate results and the option to forgo the skills. A great symphony is not better if played faster than the composers original tempo. Great art is talent and that cannot be faked because the absence of skill and imagination is just bad art.

Painting, music and sculpting, the classic forms of art through time, are impervious to short-cuts. To achieve any notable recognition requires dedication, years of practice and a thorough understanding of the medium in which you choose to express yourself. Photography tools have evolved over time and emerged as the medium of choice for the needs of todays generations seeking a form for art.. With the development of digital technology the mystery of film and exposure was gone.  Master photographers and the work they produced continue to stand the test of time and photographers today continue to produce great photographs. Why? A camera is simply the tool a photographer uses to transfer an image from the mind so the audience can view it. Simply put, Leonardo Da Vinci could still have painted Mona Lisa with a different brush, it was just one tool available to him.

It is not as simple a buying the best brushes, paints and canvas to produce great paintings. Expensive equipment will not give you the skills necessary to apply photography’s basic fundamentals, just the tool to apply the skills. Think of the basic photography skills as a guideline for your imagination. If you have comprehension of light, time, perspective and composition as it applies to photography you have skills to apply to the process and camera equipment are the tools to capture it.

It seems these days that those who possess the art of patience and tolerance are constantly tested by those who feel they can skip the learning curve, jump to the last chapter and never understand the book. A generation growing-up not willing to pay dues in the pursuit of a chosen field if they can find a way around it. It requires an effort, and they fail to grasp the reasoning behind a good base of knowledge. The ‘you-tube experts’, who figure they can learn all there is to know in a 2 minute video are abundant.

I had no doubt you have to work your way through the trenches in a chosen field to earn the respect of your peers or the admiration of those who appreciate your medium. Learning from mistakes was part of the process, not an option, in pursuit of a well rounded successful career. Respecting those who have gone before you and looking to them for advice, inspiration and knowledge was apprenticing. There are many things to be learned that are not in any books. If you were lucky enough to find a mentor and listen and watch, you learned little pieces of invaluable information that stayed with you throughout your career. I can look back at the route I had taken and see the value in the complete learning process and the humility of knowing you still can learn more.

Explaining to someone that there is indeed a reason why some succeed in art and some do not becomes an exercise in frustration on the part of the teacher or mentor at times. Anyone can buy an expensive Gibson guitar and learn three chords, but will never be a great musician without understanding music.  Inevitably in order to excel in any given field you have to understand it completely. It is the process that requires a person to look within and see the benefit of starting at the beginning that discourages most from pursuing skilled crafts. As a mentor, to some, I am constantly using my skills of tolerance and patience to advise people the benefits of starting at the beginning of a learning curve. I can take anyone on a photo shoot, show them the subject and provide the opportunity. Knowing where to start mining for the image and which tools will produce the best photographs comes with the experience of knowing your craft.

Photography is a process to me that embodies a mindset that seems to be fading in these times of instant gratification. I still find photography to be a calm slow process, very methodical with a sense of anticipation and excitement around the edges.  Before the advent of digital photography, when the results of your efforts were still unknown until the film was processed, there were less people interested in pursuing photography as a career or as a serious amateur because mistakes were much more costly through the learning curve.

The evolution of photography has given people the opportunity to bypass the costs involved with film, developing and printing that discouraged most. Digital technology has not provided a shortcut to great photography. There are still, and always will be, those who blame the camera for a bad photo. Not willing to accept responsibility and learn from mistakes will never help someone move forward. What the digital evolution has done is open up the once mysterious world of photography to creative, imaginative people and provide a stage for them to express themselves as artists. The difference between the good art and the bad art will be the individuals understanding of the medium beyond the tool, some creativity and a lot of passion.

The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score and the print the performance“. – Ansel Adams

Pepper #29..28..27….

Edward Weston’s famous Pepper #30 is a great example of studying a subject. Exploring all angles. lighting and composition before choosing the one which best portrays the vision you saw prior to  the first photograph. There was Pepper #29..28..27…, and so on before deciding on Pepper #30. But it took all the previous attempts to get the flow working and really start to see the subject and its possibilities.

There has to be a beginning for any photograph. A start which takes place before you realize it is happening. Perhaps an instinct that tells you a moment is approaching and it is time to start putting something in the camera. All your years fine tuning and reading events, situations or landscapes let you anticipate and prepare for that moment your minds eye envisions. The establishing shot is always a good place to begin. It allows you to begin the process of melding your mind eye to the camera. Just as a musician will tune-up an instrument before the symphony, serious photographers will warm their senses and photograph a subject from numerous angles, lighting, time of day, lenses, shutter speeds and apertures.

This approach has been part of my photography repertoire for many decades now, but with a conscious effort anyone can begin to make it their style too. Why leave something when you’re already there with only one image to show for it, give yourself endless possibilities for the edit later. At times you may find yourself at the right place but the wrong time. You  see the potential in your mind but the lighting would be so much better at another point in the day. Shoot something anyway and plan to come back for the shot in your head later that day, the next week, month or year. At least you have your staring point with the initial shots you captured.

I have many photographs where the final shot is the culmination of over 100 exposures/captures and many trips back to a location. The adage ‘a work in progress’ starts when your emotions and instincts move you to respond by lifting your camera and end when all the shooting is done, the editing completed and the image has become reality.

As with anything else the more you do something the better you will get at it. It has nothing to do with what kind of gear you own if you lack the vision to see the images and react to them. Study a subject and explore it from more than one perspective. Begin to see the light. Is it warm or cool? Is your subjects lighting from the front, back or side? Would it enhance your vision if the lighting were from another angle at another time of the day? If you begin asking the questions to yourself you will become much more aware of the role your ‘minds eye’ has in the photography process. Remember your are not merely the cameras operator, you are the artist with his tools.

The story behind my image. This photograph has taken me almost four years to produce. I knew the location existed but needed to find it, scout it and finally shoot it. My first attempt was six month after I discovered the general area, but was at the wrong time of day, I shot some preliminary photos to review and plan my next trip. Which was on Fathers Day, with a 4 AM wake-up call. I think I shot about 90 frames and edited down to one. I tend to be a ‘fat’ shooter, likely from my background in photojournalism. It wasn’t until a year and a half later that I finally had the image my mind had seen.

“To look at a thing is very different from seeing it.”

Oscar Wilde

Hitting the ‘Revert’ button!

I have had a strong urge lately to step back with my personal photography, to a time when control was more in my hands and exposures focused more on my intentions than the cameras willingness to take it off my hands. There seems to be a laziness creeping across photography. I am glad I did not discard tools once capable, and still today, of producing the images I seek. I applaud that 35mm film has been replaced by the new 35mm DSLR’s, but other formats still have a place in my tool box as a photojournalist and artist. I keep pace with today’s technology and am amazed at the advances made in this field and utilize it everyday. What I’m referring to is the passion for work I have yet to produce that signifies my style and approach. The feeling a craftsman has for their work rather than an operator.

Each time I open my freezer I am reminded of past adventures, dozens of rolls of exposed film and the anticipation of their return from the lab where my efforts would finally realized. Yes, I’ve had have many rolls of 120 and 4×5 sheet film, all waiting for there moment. I have sold some of my tools, a 645 Mamiya system, all my 35mm film cameras and one 67 Pentax body. Keeping in my arsenal a Pentax 67 system , a 4×5, an 8×10 large format camera and my Canon DSLR system. I feel lucky to have been able to experience and refine my photography skills before the digital camera revolution. Knowledge is wealth.

There was a aura of mystery surrounding the masters of great photograph in the past. Viewing the image immediately after exposure was not an option. There was still one more important process before the culmination of your efforts was complete. Developing the film. Photographers were more focused and methodical on the complete process from beginning to end and felt less rushed. Today’s generation of photographers, those who do not know old school, need immediate confirmation of their efforts. While this is advantageous and time saving in the field of news photography it has, in my opinion, weakened other fields of photography and has moved the focus away from what photography is meant to be, for me anyway

We are constantly shown the image on the back of a camera seconds after the photo was taken. Is this the only gratification sought after by the authors of these instant images? No editing, basic correcting, printing, or framing for a broader audience. Most won’t even take the time to rotate a photo when they upload it, that requires effort and time. The need for immediate results, has severely shortened the answer to ‘Where do you want your photography to go?’ I am always amazed at how stressed people can get today when technology, in their mind, is not fast enough. A signal sent to a satellite in space and back takes mere seconds, yet can produce frustrated reactions from people using laptops, phones or any wireless device when it takes a few seconds more. What is happened to society today spills over into every aspect of our lives, if you let it.

I converted my Pentax 67 body over to a pinhole camera recently and began the learning process behind this basic format. Calculating pinhole diameters, focal lengths, f/stops, angle of view and exposures. then adding time for reciprocity failure with long exposures. Why not just pop an SD card into my DSLR and shoot? Maybe I’m not sure the way the flock is veering is where I want to go with my projects. Knowing the effort and discipline it takes to produce even just one great analog image will give me the added satisfaction I’m missing now and see lacking in the digital jungle. It may set my photography apart from the mainstream again and actually feel like art throughout the entire process. There are distinct advantages for a photographer today with computers, software and printing inks and papers but the omission of a sense of participation, other than pushing the button, does not give me the feeling that I really created something anymore. Processing film, editing the images, scanning and digital workflow all contribute to the final work and may be my answer to finding a balance between the new and the old. I miss sliding my loop across a strip of 120 slide film and seeing that one frame reveal itself, days or even weeks after the initial exposure was made That sense of accomplishment, experience and the reaffirmation of your designation as ‘professional’ all rolled into one. I like the anxious feeling I get as I load and check an analog camera, calculate exposures, filter and finally begin the meticulous collaboration between the photographer and his tools. Accomplished void of immediate confirmation, but from experience, instinct and faith in your ability. While good composition, lighting and timing are skills still necessary to the final outcome of any great photograph, sometimes it is necessary to immerse yourself into the process fully to get an inner feeling revived.

I’m searching for a new large format lens to work with and eager to expose a few sheets of 4×5 soon. I have a few ideas that will lend themselves to this format. Reverting to tried and true photography formats from my past while still utilizing all that digital photography and technology can offer, gives new meaning and feeling to my work. The passion and love for what I do was never in question, just the process.

“They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” Andy Warhol

Ahh! The road trip…

I love road trips, even more since I realized it is really just about hitting the open road and just taking it all in. No expectations or agendas. To me it’s about putting myself out there and enjoying the moment, sometimes with company, my dog Buck, though he has since passed, or just by myself. I still like to spend time alone, guess a career in photojournalism forces you to be comfortable with yourself. Having the choice to stop when and where you choose for as long as you decide is a big plus when going  ‘solo’. There are times. also, when sharing a day on the road, in the company of another person makes the trip that much more memorable for you and them.

I was initially influenced by a colleague of mine at the newspaper who used to disappear on his days off and return with some great photos from his travels on the road. I mistakenly concluded that all you had to do to find that great photo was to drive. It wasn’t about that at all. My colleague had been down these roads many times and now knew where and when the opportunities for his ideas may arise. The point being that he also had to drive some of these roads for the first time at some point as I do now and maybe you will soon.

Spontaneous road trips get my adrenaline pumping. Deciding the evening before is adventurous, just enough time to gather some things and ponder which road to start driving on, but close enough so it doesn’t become over planned. Some trips are a few hours, a couple of days or even a week on the road. My longest road trip started in Calgary and ended in Cabo del Sol, Mexico, with my younger brother. No big plan, no reservations, no firm arrival date, just a destination our passports and some cash.

I prefer to be well on my way when the sun begins to glow on the horizon, a big Tim’s beside me and my favorite tunes on my ipod.  Sure the gear is handy, it’s hard to leave it behind when you’ve worked for a newspaper, but my goal is not about searching for great photos these days. I have spent many days endlessly scanning the landscape for that one photo, logging the kilometers and growing more anxious as the hours passed and I hadn’t found it yet.  You know that elusive career making photo is waiting out there for you on the side of the road somewhere, you just can’t find that road. Your mind starts to tell you “why bother’ next time an opportunity to hit the road presents itself. What you have to hear is ‘why not’ and leave your expectations at home. These used to be wasted days, but now they are days I look forward to. Leaving with no agenda or quota for photos.  Suddenly the world is anything but dull and boring as I drive.

Maybe someday I’ll drive by that career making photograph too, good thing the gear is in the back.

“The real world does not conform to our expectations and predictions.”    Peter London

The ‘idea’….

cemetary, Cortona, Italy

The ability to formulate an idea for a photo or series of photos is key to the execution of it. Read that again! The next step, is to develop a train of thought to follow through with the idea and create an image or works that take the idea to its fruition.

There is a difference between a snapshot and a photograph as there is between a memo and a novel. We’ve all seen photos that were exposed well but left you let down. Dull, boring attempts where the camera was left to interpret your intention. Ideas are what make the difference between a technically well executed image and art. Whether preconceived or realized in the moment the thought process of formulating an idea is the key to success as a photographer. You wouldn’t expect to publish a best selling novel simply by taking a pencil in hand and putting words to paper on a subject you have no interest in, it would be random, pointless babble. You must say something of interest. The same applies in a photographers reason for raising a camera, there has to be a something about the subject that appeals to your senses and that you wish to convey to the viewer.

On a trip to Italy, I stayed outside the town of Cortona for a week. Upon arrival I had a few hours to walk through the town before heading to the villa. The next morning, starting out early from the hills above the valley, my colleague and I were surprised by a blanket of fog covering the valley floor. Continuing to our destination, Cortona, I began to formulate an idea based on a view from my scout of the town the day before. I returned to the area and continued fine tuning the possibilities in my head, though the scene was completely shrouded in a blanket of fog. I committed myself to the idea, grabbed my gear and, guided only by instinct and a few distant landmarks above the fog, walked to my best guess at the vantage point along the side of the road. My colleague, unable to share my enthusiasm and patience that early, left and went into town vowing to return with cappuccino later. When what must have been an hour passed and the sun warmed I could sense the fog settling lower in the valley and prepared to shoot. To add a little more adrenaline and urgency to the situation, I was in the wrong spot when my vision began to take shape through the thinning cloud and scrambled farther up the narrow road to the better vantage point. I did get a shot close to what I had conceived in my mind as the fog descended below the cemetery and lifted it to the heavens. The series of photographs produced, and the final image printed, were only possible with the ‘idea’ I formulated when presented with the circumstances of the fog that morning and the knowledge from a brief walk around the town. That and my willingness to see the ‘ideas’ through to the end. To me there was nothing more important that morning than that idea and the potential for it to be realized. I was oblivious to any photos I may have missed elsewhere as I was in my moment.

I have started keeping a journal of my ideas. Till that point I am sure I let most ideas with some merit slip away by not acting upon them in a timely fashion. I may want to return to a special place at another time, right place wrong time happens a lot, or plan a side trip when visiting an area on another adventure. Inevitably most ideas are lost without keeping notes. Even taking a preliminary snapshot doesn’t work most times as I have photos that I just can’t pinpoint the location for in my files, other then ‘southern Alberta’ as a caption. The process of writing down my thoughts allows me to go back when I am in a different state of mind and examine the idea again and again, giving me a reference to expand, reshape and continue to develop until the ‘ideas’ realization has come and any more time would be merely procrastination on my part. Some ideas, in time, blossom into multiple photographs or projects. Some do not, but still remain in my journal for some more thought.

With the advent of digital photography and its technical leaps and bounds there is no reason not to be able to produce a technically good photograph. The term ‘idiot proof’ has evolved but will never replace the need for originality, creativity and commitment to elevate your work to a more personal level and become art.

“There is nothing worse than a sharp photograph of a fuzzy idea” Ansel Adams