Sunday, April 29, 2012

Edit Edit Edit

By "edit" here I mean "throw photographs away" not "photoshop them to within an inch of their life".
The best time to throw an image away is before you take it. This is sort of hard, though, since we tend to fall in love with subjects and ideas, and we try them out. In the age of digital photography, the cost of failure is very low, so we shoot and shoot. At least, I shoot and shoot and shoot.
Your ratios will vary, but if you're not throwing things out pretty aggressively, either:
  • You are awesome
  • You are not throwing away nearly as much as you ought
  • You are not shooting enough
How much to shoot, and how much to discard, depends very much on context. If you're shooting expensive sheet film, and you're really thinking through your ideas and taking your time, maybe you make keepers fully half the time. It's possible!
If you're shooting fast action (e.g. kids) with a digital camera, when your goal is to make a pleasing record of a family event, you might throw away 90% or 95% of what you shoot. On the one hand, your standards are pretty low so you might keep a lot, but on the other hand you're shooting digital so you're blasting away pretty vigorously to try to get at least one good image of each important moment.
If you're shooting something quick, but for art's sake? Let's say you're shooting a portfolio of fine art photographs of hockey. You might shoot a 100s of images, and keep 1, or none. Your standards are high. The action is fast and unpredictable. Perhaps you're shooting digital so each exposure is free.
The point is, you should always be editing. Ruthlessly and thoroughly. Don't accept a bad image, or a dubious one. Shoot enough frames to get what you want. Go back and re-shoot before you try to save a bad image. If the image doesn't look good in a thumbnail or on a contact sheet, it's probably not going to be worth a damn when you're done with whatever your process is. Ruthlessly refuse to press the shutter button if the image is crap, no matter how much you love the subject. Ruthlessly delete the out of focus images, no matter how pretty the out-of-focus girl is. Ruthlessly trash the 10 lousy shots and only even consider the 1 best one of the set of 11 you shot of that thing. Then throw that one out too, when you realize that the light post is sticking out of the model's head.
Don't try to save a bad image, unless there's no other choice. HDR isn't going to make a bad image into a good one. Punching the contrast through the roof won't either. Oversharpening it? Guess... just guess. NO! NO IT WILL NOT! Sometimes we fall in love with these terrible hot messes, and we spend way too much time trying to make something good out of it. Usually there is something good in there that we've fallen in love with, but if the image is fundamentally bad it's because the badness overwhelms the good. You can't parse the badness away, no matter how you try.
If you ever do manage to save a bad image and turn it into a good one, it's likely because you're a better painter than you are a photographer. Perhaps you should consider a career change?

Friday, April 27, 2012

A Photo

This is one of mine.
It's not a technically strong photograph, prints bigger than about 5x7 would look all fuzzy and icky. It was shot with some 8 megapixel point&shoot up in Tuolumne Meadows.
Anyways, it's one of the better photographs I've ever made. It has good balance of forms, some nice echoed shapes and, of course, a good subject rendered according to the visual ideas of Ansel Adams. Not, I hasten to clarify, that I consider this photograph on par with his, merely that my handling of the composition and final rendering are clearly informed by a lot of Adams' photographs. In particular, the relatively high contrast (far outside what was actually present in the scene) and the deep shadows.
The dark shadows, high contrast, and especially the high local contrast in the clouds and the rock, give a sense of drama. The low viewpoint, looking (as one must) up at the great rock formation, enhances this. If you're interested, feel free to save off a copy and see what happens when you reduce the contrast, or do some "perspective correction" to reduce that sense of looking up.

Thursday, April 26, 2012


A feature I tend to notice in photographs is contrasting pairs. I like them "in balance", whatever that means. Perhaps something like "of nearly equal visual interest" except that's not always true. Usually I see one of the pair first, and its presence is merely balanced by the other which I notice later. This is similar to the notion of "negative space" which is in its own way just as important as the subject, the positive space, but is mostly unnoticed.
  • Near/Far
  • Left/Right
  • Light/Dark
  • Up/Down
  • Background/Foreground
  • Texture/Texture
  • Shape/Shape
We like to have things to compare. My eye enjoys echoed visual elements and contrasting visual elements, placed against one another for comparison. A brightly lit subject might appeal more placed against a dark background. Placing a small detail in the foreground enhances the sense of scale and distance to a large subject in the distance. A rough and interesting texture is made more prominent and interesting placed against a smooth texture.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

12 Great Tips to Punch Up Your Snaps

These sorts of posts are always terrible messes, giving you twelve useless bits of eye candy you can apply. If you have not mastered depth of field, or bokeh, or HDR or whatever technical hoo-hah you want to deploy, go read up, practice, and just do it. None of these things are hard. By all means, go look closely at photographs you enjoy looking at, pick them apart. What did the photographer do?
  • Where is the light coming from?
  • Is it soft or harsh?
  • What is the angle of view?
  • What is the point of view?
  • What was done to color and contrast with post-processing?
and so on. Then pick through these things for which ones are important to making you enjoy the image. Technique probably plays a role in your enjoyment, it's rare that a subject alone is enough, so figure out what you like.
Then go practice those techniques a little. Really, it's not that hard. If you really want a tutorial on bokeh, google "bokeh tutorial" and you'll probably find a dozen. They won't tell you anything you don't know, or could not have figured out in 30 seconds of experimentation.
Similarly lighting, photographs posted on flickr or wherever with "strobist info" drive me wild. If you need a little diagram of the lighting setup to see what's going on, you're simply not looking at the photograph. Look at the result, it's all in there. By definition. If the result of a light isn't visible in the photograph, then that light isn't necessary anyway.
Here's some general guidelines and ideas for making a photograph that connects with the viewer:
  • How does the scene make you feel? What about it makes you feel that way? Shoot that.
  • Is there a story in your image? Tell it in one frame. Well, shoot many frames, but pick the one that tells the story.
  • When in doubt, put people in it. People are interesting.
  • Be enigmatic, if nothing else. Make the viewer wonder, but try not to let them down. See also putting people in.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Online Photographer

Mike at ToP rules from orbit, but sometimes he or his guest writers wander off into technical mucking about with resolution and sharpness and gear and so on. So, it's always a joy to see essays like this one.
Read it. Live it. It's the truest thing I've read about photographs on this whole ugly internet thing.

Friday, April 20, 2012

An OWI Photo

Here's a photograph from the Office of War Information:
Nice, huh?
Two human figures, one on each side. Two balls, one on top of the other, in some sort of column. Some interesting stuff in the background, that's not too distracting. I think it's printed a little too high contrast, there's a lack of middle tones and an overall harshness to it. Still, the textures on the ball-things that the men are leaning on/climbing are striking and awesome.
This is a great example of balancing forms and areas. Left/right we have the two soldiers, who are in the bottom half of the frame to contrast with the sky above, and we have the two ball forms up and down as well. There's a natural focal point, which the two men are more or less facing, and which isn't quite centered. There's the end of a third ball at the top of the frame, to close things up visually there. There's some things wrong with it, but it's a very strong image. As for engaging the mind, well, there's a whole lot to wonder about, isn't there? More or less, who the hell are these guys, where the hell are they, and what the hell are they doing there?
Evidently they have scaled the scaffolding (see those sticks in the background?) to the top of the Taj Mahal. They appear to be sitting on the base of the finial.
Where's the photographer?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Shoot what you feel

Look at other people's photographs. Famous photographs, things your friends have shot, anything. How does a photograph make you feel? How do you react?

If it makes you think a little, or feel a little, beyond the usual "what a pretty flower" or "what an awesome HDR", try to figure out why. What is it in the image that makes you feel that way?

Some elements of the visual vocabulary:

  • Darker vs. Lighter
  • High contrast vs. Low contrast
  • Color temperature (this applies to B&W too, as tonining)
  • Where is the subject in the frame?
  • Point of view (low, high, left, right)
  • Angle of view (wide, narrow)
  • What is emphasized, and how?

This might seem like art nerd wankery, and it is, but if you can learn to read the language a little, you've got a better chance at speaking it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The camera doesn't matter

The camera is a box of darkness.

The lens is just a lens.

Your ideas matter.

Certainly, one camera or lens may be necessary to execute an idea. If you only have ideas that can be done with another camera, or other equipment, you need to think harder. Even a crappy ancient phone camera, 640x480 can be used to make a compelling image. You can't print it sharp at 16x24 inches, but it can still be a powerful image. All you need is an idea.

If you have a specific end goal in mind, the equipment matters. Do you want to sell photos to National Geographic? Do you want to make large prints for your home? Do you want to take pictures of your children, without flash? If you think only that you will take better photographs if only you had X, you are kidding yourself.

If you want to buy some gear, explain to yourself what you're going to do with it. Do you need the new lights because you want to shoot portraits? Great, buy 'em and shoot some portraits. If it would just make you feel better to own some more photo crap, well, great too, but it's not helping you make better pictures. Far be it from me to judge you, but I will anyways. Consider yourself judged.

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Photograph

Let's enumerate some facts about the image:

The photographer is a little low, looking up at the taller man to the right and at or slightly below the eyeline of the two shorter men. Nobody in the picture looks very relaxed. They're standing in front of some sort of long narrow room or passage receding out of sight behind, which gives a little visual interest to the background without being too distracting, and gives a dark background against which the well lit subjects are accentuated. The light appears to be making the white men squint a little.

Everyone is dressed in clean clothing, and fairly neat. The white men are wearing hats and ties, and appear to have pressed shirts. The native american's shirt appears clean but not pressed. He wears no hat, and no tie.

The native american appears to be a distinctly smaller man than the two white men.

This is an image from the Farm Security Administration's photography archive by Russell Lee, an FSA photographer, from about July 1940. entitled "Anglo-American and Indian Friends, Taos, New Mexico"

Think about the visual language of this one a little. The angle of view gives a sense of looming, which one could certainly read as a couple of white dudes looming over this Indian they have.. well that they have between them. The juxtaposition of two white guys and one First Nations guy is certainly rife with historical context, isn't it? How would the image change if you made these changes:

  • Light behind instead of dark
  • Less brightness of light on the subjects
  • Point of view raised 2 feet
  • Place the scene in a recognizable location, say, a restaurant or a store
  • Two first nations men, flanking one white man

Does it work? The photographer probably intended it as a message of racial unity, showing the friendship that exists across race lines. Possibly it even worked that way in 1940, before the Civil Rights Movement and so on in the USA. I don't think it works at all that way now, but it is a powerful image nonetheless. The obvious discomfort of the subjects is interesting to the viewer, it could just be discomfort at being photographed, or it could be more. The people are enigmatic, which is inherently interesting. There's subtext supplied by the viewer, probably a viewer in any era, probably different subtext, but there's a lot of it whatever it is.

As a composition, it's not great. There's no wonderful set of forms here or framing, and the light isn't awesome. The one really good thing is the background. It's interesting and mysterious, the tilt of the ceiling adds a little visual tension to the image. The decision to place the men somewhat low in the frame was a good one, visually.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Context Matters

The viewer of a photograph lives in a society, generally. That society has ideals, values, politics, and history, and by living in it the viewer is thoroughly steeped in these ideals, values, politics and history. We all, viewers of photographs and otherwise, have our heads full of visual symbols, of shorthand representations of ideas and themes, which have been impressed upon us by our society, in our schools, museums, and by our media.

A person looking at your photograph has seen other photographs, quite possibly a lot of other photographs. They have seen movies, they have watched television. While the viewer may not know it, he or she is in some ways deeply familiar with the local dialects of visual language.

The viewer too has specific ideas, dreams, ideals, values, and history. We all experience new things in terms of things we have experienced before, through the lens of our own history. We see a photograph, and we compare it to similar scenes from our past, we compare the people in it to people we have met.

A liquor bottle in a photograph reminds us of drinks we have drunk, of alcoholic relatives, of parties gone good or bad. It reminds us of ads for liquor we have seen, and the feelings those ads evoked. We associate it with social mores, good or bad. We might well remember some snobbish discussion about phallic shapes, re-triggering that sexual association. There are layers of semiotics that will cascade into our minds when we see almost any identifiable object, or even if we think we can identify an object. What would a photograph of a flower do? Of a nude man?

Now place that photograph next to some explanatory text, or with a group of other photographs. Display this somewhere. The things surrounding the photograph now generate more mental activity.

Somehow, the viewer chews all this stuff up and, if paying attention, arrives at some simple conclusion, usually "I like this" or "I don't like this".

If little or none of this stuff happens, either your photograph or your viewer is an abject failure. If the viewer does not experience much of this, your photograph probably failed to capture their eye for any length of time, and certainly failed to engage their brain.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Photographer's Choices

It has been said that there are only two things the photographer controls:
  • Where to stand
  • When to press the button

While not literally true, this captures a lot of it. What's less obvious is just how much control this gives the photographer. Unpacking these choices a bit, we find choices like these:
  • What's the subject?
  • What else is in-frame?
  • What is left out of frame?
  • How are things lit in-frame?
  • From what point of view to we see the subject?

and we're not even talking about post-processing yet.

The photographer can eliminate evidence from the frame, choose a child's point of view, view the scene from afar or from up close, or make it look like night.

The photographer can choose to eliminate color entirely, or render color falsely. In post processing, even mild post processing, the contrast and light can be altered to enhance the mood or change it entirely. Things in-frame can be emphasized, de-emphasized, or removed entirely.

These are all things the photographer can and necessarily does, do to remove the image from the realm of merely recorded reality. These choices are the means by which the photographer attracts the viewer's eye, and engages the viewer's mind. These are the nouns and verbs of the visual language the photographer uses to communicate more merely a representation of the subject would communicate.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Abstraction in Photography

Photographs tend to appear "real" to the casual viewer. We as viewers tend to imbue them with some veritas, because they are so detailed, and because they do capture in some sense exactly what is in front of the lens.

Nonetheless, there is an enormous amount of abstraction present in a photograph. A partial list:

  • A photograph is 2 dimensional, while the world is 3 dimensional
  • ... or 4 dimensional. A photograph is also an instant of continuing time.
  • Color is either altered or absent in the photograph
  • A photograph is only a section of what is seen, a rectangular view, excluding much of what was there to be seen

This does not even include choices made in post processing, in which color, contrast, brightness are altered, elements may be retouched or "cleaned up", artifacts are almost certainly introduced.

We see a photograph as "real" only because, while it contains in fact only an extremely small fraction of what is "real" it is enough to fool our neurology into treating it as an accurate representation.

This stuff matters, because it's this abstraction that allows the photographer to do more than simply record what is in front of the camera. It's this that's makes the photographer more than merely a reporter of what is. Paradoxically, we tend to view the photographer as a reporter of what is, and to feel a bit cheated when we learn that what we're seeing is not in fact what is or was. We should not feel cheated. If we want to see what is, we should use our eyes, not photographs.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Migrant mother

Look at this photo for a minute. At least 30 seconds. Let it soak in, think about it. How does it make you feel? What do you observe about the photograph, and the things in the photograph?


Why does this work? I hope it works for you. It works for a lot of people.

First of all, it's a portrait. We like portraits, we have a lot of neurological machinery which is devoted to faces, and this is all engaged by a portrait. We immediately start asking ourselves "who is she?" and "what is she thinking?" and we start guessing answers. In this case, maybe we know some answers, and we remember those. Likely, you have at least some specific impressions of what this photo is about. The two older children in frame have interesting postures, why are they hiding their faces? There's huge amount of body language in the image here that we can think about, and guess about. The poses are all slightly awkward, which makes us more curious and interested. It is inevitable that a viewer of this photograph will construct a sort of narrative to fill in a bunch of details. The mind is engaged, the mind has some fun with the image.

Secondly, it's a strong composition. The subject is strongly framed by the vertical pole on the right, and the dark area upper left, and then framed again by the three children, left, right, and on her lap. Finally, her arm gives a strong line leading to her face, the central point in the image which is not itself quite centered but placed in a geometrically appealing point about 1/3 of the way down the frame (textbook). Dorothea Lange was an accomplished commercial portraitist, the strength of this composition is not an accident. The eye is also engaged! Hurrah.

Thirdly, there's a pile of social context around this image. The title suggests a lot of stuff, "Migrant Mother". There is history surrounding this image, the Great Depression, the migration of rural families from the mid-west, and so on. Whether you know it or not, your impression of this photograph is probably informed by this history, possibly laundered through several layers of people.

When the photo was made, it was about specific current events. It was almost a news photograph. In that historical context, it was quite powerful. Some of this remains, mellowed by time and filtered through generations of viewers, but it's hard to completely escape. You, as a viewer, see this image through the lens of that historical context whether you know it or not.

And that's part of why this photograph works.

Monday, April 2, 2012


This isn't really a taxonomy of photographs, it's really more of an incomplete list of overlapping categories. Still, I think there's some use in it.

Over Processed Crap
You see a lot of this on flickr. This is all about applying post-processing to a mediocre image to create something that is eye-catching. HDR, over-sharpening, over-saturation, all those things. Basically anything in flickr's Explore will fit in here. These are un-challenging images with visual "pop". The capture the eye, they do not engage the brain. They are perfect for the social media world of 3 second attention spans.

These photographs do evoke a reaction, but that reaction is "Wow! Great HDR!" or something. The viewer reacts to and admires the processing, the look of the thing, before the subject, and before the image qua image. The latter is probably left completely unexamined, really.

Technical Exercises
These images are tests or exercises for the photographer. One might test equipment, technique, ideas about composition, that sort of thing. Done well, these things are emotionally dead photographs that nonetheless do some things very well. One might even wonder why it feels so dead, given that the lighting is so great, or the tones are so well-placed, or the model is posed and framed so beautifully. Sometimes a technical exercise is also a fine photograph, but the point is that it's not made to be one.

Snapshots are photographic proof that the photographer was somewhere, or did something. By intention, these photographs probably evoke nothing for anyone but the photographer or other people who were there. For the photographer, the image brings back Grandma's birthday party, dinner at that one place, my daughter when she was 6 months old. See also stupid pictures of My Meal. Snapshots are the most common photograph made, by far, and serve an excellent purpose. There's nothing wrong with making snapshots.

It's sort of rude to inflict them on other people, though, since your snapshots mean nothing to me.

Cool Things
These photos are usually a cool angle, a reflection, an unusual viewpoint. The photographer was clearly struck by some cool thing, and took a picture of it. The photograph is all about the cool thing. Ideally, such an image evokes a "wow, what a cool thing" response, but generally no more.

The Eiffel tower reflected in the rear view mirror of a BMW. These overlap with snapshots a lot, obviously, but they may reach out a little past the photographer and reach unrelated viewers, albeit superficially. "Wow, what a cool thing!" is more of a response than "Who is the old lady blowing out the candles on the cake?".

A photograph that evokes something more might count as "art". Ansel Adams' work evokes a sense of being there, like a snapshot, but for other people. His photographs have arguably altered the the way we see mountains -- they certainly do not look the way he shot them, but they feel like it. Walker Evans shows us some sort of essence of poverty, in some of his work. Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" pokes a bunch of buttons for many of us. As an aside: Ansel Adams wasn't much of an artist, but he did some art things pretty well, and he's had an immense impact on how we look at photographs and at rocks.

Art creates a reaction in the viewer. The photo shows us what was, at that instant, in front of the lens. Through myriad choices starting with what to place in front of the lens, the photographer shows us something a little new, and enlarges the viewer's mind slightly. We react not exclusively to the subject, nor to the way the image is processed, nor to any specific features of the way the image looks, but rather to all of these at once. The viewer's own preconceptions and memories and social constructs bear on the image and create some new thought or emotional complex. The eye is captured, the mind is engaged. The photograph is worth looking at more than once, and has a fair chance of being remembered for more than a few seconds.