Tuesday, December 30, 2014

On The Internet

There is a line in Dylan Thomas' poem, "A Child's Christmas in Wales", in a list of gifts:

...and books that told me everything about the wasp, except why

A great deal of the internet will tell you everything about how to take a picture, except, well, if not "why?" then except some other terribly important things.

I see this especially for portraits. We learn where to stick the lights, and how to pose, and more sophisticated resources will copy out stuff on where to stick the lights for fat people versus thin people, how to pose men versus women, and so on. But none of them will tell you how to take a portrait. If you should chance to share your test portraits with other would-be photographers, you'll get a lot of feedback about where you stuck the lights, and how your "skin processing" looks. The closest anyone will come to critiquing the portrait is "she has a great expression".

You see it for landscapes as well. If you want to shoot a landscape you should wait until the Golden Hour, and then nail your camera to a very heavy tripod, and then set your lens to the hyperfocal distance and about f/11 and make sure the horizon is level and and and and and... These are instructions for taking not landscapes but very very specific kinds of landscapes. What if you see the landscape as a sort of post-apocalypse Mad Max dream of hell? I'm pretty sure none of that shit is remotely applicable.

Even commercial stuff like weddings, where the idea is arguably to do this, everything you read directs you toward shooting this wedding so that it is indistinguishable from all other weddings.

Nobody tells you to dig deep and find a concept. Nobody tells you to work with your subjects to find out what they want to say, nobody tells you how to make pictures with any guts at all.

Except, of course, for me. It's kind of my thing.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Word Games

Lately, I've been playing word games to drive photographic ideas. When I see something I'd like to photograph, to make something of, I play word games.

It goes like this.

I take some pictures of whatever it is. Not really trying to make photographs as such, just to record it. I walk around and I think about it, and try to develop some sort of reaction to whatever it is. Then I leave. Later I look at my record shots and think some more, and try to boil things down to a few adjectives, a phrase, some words. Some sort of verbal catch-phrase that covers some of how I see the photos I want to shoot. It might be how I really feel about it "an erotic dream" or how I think it might wittily be portrayed, "gothic", or something else entirely. The words are about the final result, not the thing I am considering making the subject, although those two might overlap.

Then I mull those words over, along with the record shots, and try to develop a shooting script. What techniques are going to produce a good result? When should I be shooting? Do I need props, lights, equipment? Will things need to get moved around? What lens(es) should I deploy?

Then I go and shoot it.

Then I look at those pictures. Either we're going someplace at this point or we're not. If we're going someplace, I'm probably going to return and shoot it again, having learned some things, e.g. "no, no, it should be raining!". If we're not, then into the bin with the idea. Or, I suppose, a new idea might arise, new words or phrases, a new reaction, idea, feeling.

I've done this with a couple projects over the last couple years and it seems to produce immensely satisfying results.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Thought for the Day

If you can't say something more or less intelligible about your picture, you probably haven't thought it through. Words are what we use to think with, mostly.

If you can explain your picture fully with words, then possibly you should have written an essay rather than taking a picture.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Just Shooting Stuff II

Here's a sort of thought experiment.

Suppose you're out with the camera, just shooting stuff. Looking for some good photos. Imagine that you see, parked on the street, a bright red Lamborghini Countach. If you're in to cars, even a little, you might decide to take a picture of it. Here's how your thoughts and actions might play out:

Cool car! <click>

Well, that's one way to do it. You probably won't get anything but a really uninteresting snap of a car.

Cool car! How can I make it look cool? <click>

Ok, that's better. You've got a sketch of a concept. You're probably going to make a more interesting picture. It might be a cliche, but at least you're going to think a moment, and maybe move around a bit. Depending on how sophisticated you are, you might do quite a lot here. There's a good chance that you'll get a cool-looking picture.

Cool car! How would "Road&Track" shoot it? <click>

Another viable approach. If you read the magazine and pay attention, you're going to wind up with a copy of a style. Probably a second-rate copy. But it's better than the dumb snap the first chap took, up at the top of this post.

Cool car! How do I feel about this car? <click>

(or any of any number of other ideas - How does the owner feel? What do the passers-by think of this car? How does this car related to global economy? - and so on)

This sounds like artsy crapola, and to an extent it is. But it's the beginning of making a personal photograph of the car. Do you think the car looks fast? How would you shoot it to capture that sense of speed? Do you think it looks ridiculous? How can you portray that?

You might wind up with a Road&Track shot when you're done, but in the first place probably not, and in the second place, it will still be your picture, not a copy of someone elses.

You might take the shot in a moment, in any of these cases. You might take a dozen test shots, go home, and hope to find the car again tomorrow. You might spend a month or a year or a decade shooting Lambos of various sorts.

How you execute the idea is up to you. The important thing is to have an idea, or at least to be searching for an idea.

Just Shooting Stuff

Lots of people, I venture to guess almost everyone who fancies themselves a bit of a photographer, tend to wander around just shooting stuff. You look for "the good ones" and you shoot those, and then you cull like fun. This is supposed to be the process.

If you wander around urban environments and shoot black and white, you call yourself a "street" photographer, for a little extra cachet, but the process is the same.

I'm on the record, repeatedly, as being OK with this. You can, as far as I am concerned, just wave the camera around pressing the shutter button wildly. Then you pick out the good ones from the contact sheets or equivalent. I've pointed out that, essentially, you're doing the "photography" part at the contact sheet. But, that's OK. Who cares when you pick out the good ones? Where is it written that you must select/frame before you press the button rather than after?

Still, in this era of digital cameras, this leads to a problem. You get a LOT of pictures you choose from. A fairly common theme online is something like I have 4 terabytes of RAW files and the backups are getting to be difficult! or something equivalent.

If you have 4 terabytes, or whatever, of pictures lying around that are just personal use stuff, you're shooting too damn much. Just as a for-instance, if you happen to have exactly 4 terabytes of RAW files, you've got at least 80,000 pictures. Probably more. You're never going to "pick the good ones out" of this mess. Your "photography" in the sense of selecting a frame and moving forward with it, is never going to happen.

So, while that process is perfectly legitimate, it's impractical.

It also dodges, and this is the real problem, the issue of having something to say. If you're just wandering around looking for "good photos" you're probably going to find some now and then. They're going to be, at best, sterile exercises in composition. The might be visual jokes. They might be copies of something we've seen before. It's extremely unlikely that they're going to be strong personal statements. It's far less likely that you're going to be able to pull together a portfolio of related pictures that pull together to fully explicate a strong personal statement.

Now, in theory, you could pull a strong personal statement off a contact sheet. You're going to have a lot more luck pulling it out of the real world which is, until photography overlaps completely with photo-realistic 3D modeling, much much richer. I do not think you can pull a strong portfolio off a contact sheet, no matter how you try.

You've got to shoot with some kind of purpose. You've got to have some sort of goal. You needn't walk out the door with a ten page shooting script (although that wouldn't be a bad idea) but you do have to have some notion of what you're trying to say by the time you squash the masher.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

So you bought a DSLR

Here's a thing that happens. It's a sort of a parable.

You start taking some snaps, with some crummy little camera. Depending on the era, the camera is one thing or another, but it's crummy. When you take a photo of grandma at Christmas dinner, you're focused on getting the right moment. Sometimes you get lucky and a picture emerges that is just perfectly "Grandma" in one frame. Gorgeous. Your picture has heart, it has a point, it's good. Sure her head is chopped off and it's all fuzzy and the color is kind of weird. It's still a great picture of Grandma.

Now you get a DSLR (in earlier decades you might have bought a Nikon FE2, or a Mamiya something, or whatever). You want to take more pictures of Grandma, but you're determined to make them better. You get some speedlights, or equivalent. You read up on lighting, on posing. You practice with your gear. You buy more of this and that and you practice. You're working on technical detail, and this is a rabbit hole that goes down forever.

Your new pictures of Grandma are sharp, beautifully lit, her poses are spot on. Your little makeshift studio looks sharp.

If you practice real hard and spend a $1000 wisely, or $5000 less wisely, you can make pictures of Grandma that look just like the ones LifeTouch and Sears make. That is to say, completely fucking terrible pointless shit, but golly, they're sure in focus.

You're too focused on technical details to find the right moment, the moment what Grandma will emerge and impress herself upon the sensor. Grandma is self conscious and nervous because you're fussing around with lights and poses and bullshit. So you get a stiff smile, and the proper pose, and Grandma looks exactly like everyone else does when chucked into a studio with a nerd who's fussing with lights and poses and bullshit.

Now let's say you're Karsh, or Snowdon. You know that lighting and posing and all that crap matters, so you just do it. But you're not thinking much about it. It just happens and it's fine, it's pretty good. Whatever. It's not the most important thing. The most important thing is persuading something interesting to emerge. They know that they need to work the sitter past the fact that they're in a studio with lights and poses and bullshit. They need to work with the sitter over a period of time, until the necessary comfort (or discomfort) is achieved, until something indefinable but necessary can emerge to be impressed upon film, or a sensor.

That's why your photos are so shitty. That's why they look like everyone else's. That's why they look like LifeTouch.

Luckily, for a certain breed of bottom-feeding professional, that's what sells. So, there's a nice business here. The fact that there is a business seems to inspire loads of amateurs to think that this must be perfection. So, everyone's happy with the horrible lifeless shit.

Translating this parable for landscapes, "street", and so on, is left as an exercise for the reader.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


So I finally let emotions get ahead of my good sense, write a bitch-piece about LuLa, and then they come up with this.

It's a bit of techwank, and it's sort of trying to flog a color management system. But it does make some valid points about color perception. Some of which I myself have made.


Recently there's been a moderate amount of discussion about Peter Lik. Doesn't matter who he is. He sold some pictures for a pile of money recently, or, more precisely, issued a press release stating that he had. The whole thing is a bit sketchy, but whatever. The point is that the man has a moderate degree of success based on some extremely ordinary photographs.

What's the deal with THAT?

Do wish you were a successful photographer, in some sense? Really, whatever sense you want. Are you not successful? I will reveal to you an important secret, the reason, if you will, that you are not successful.

You are lazy.

Peter Lik, a guy whose work I actively detest, is successful. He is successful because he works hard, and has been working hard, for a long long time. He's invested in good quality equipment. He's invested in galleries (he's represented by 14 galleries, all his own!). He's worked hard developing a business, a sales strategy, and a pile of 500px-ready landscape photographs. His business has a burn rate in the 10s of millions, and, one hopes, generates revenues somewhere in the same range.

If you're not successful, it's because you haven't put in enough work, yet. The amount of work required is, unfortunately, open-ended. Still, the odds are excellent that you haven't put in much work at all. Mostly you've spent money on cameras, and you've dorked around a bit trying to "find your style" or whatever. You haven't busted your ass 90 hours a week for even one year, let alone ten.

Art's nice. It's not like technology where there's a market window. You can just keep plugging away at it. With a little luck, and a lot of sweat, you can find whatever success you desire, assuming that you don't die first.

Me? You ask if I am successful? Hell no. I haven't the slightest interest in working that hard. Ugh.

I'm lazy too.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Modern Portraiture, an Observation

I swear I've written this before, but I can't find it, so perhaps I have just thought it a lot.

Modern portraiture, of the LifeTouch/Senior Sessions/etc style, more or less by fiat, involves a lot of lighting. You have a key, a fill, a hair, something for the background, and probably a few more if you can afford them. The object of the exercise is to reveal all. Detail in the hair, the whole face lit, but with enough ratio for pleasant modeling, blah blah blah.

The point is that lots of gear and technique goes in to putting every physical detail of the person into the picture.

Then we suck that picture in to photoshop.

And we start erasing shit. Skin is smoothed, stray hairs are zapped. Sometimes the entire face is subtly reshaped.

Why on earth are we at such pains to put information in only to remove it in post? This is absurdity. We're doing it because we can. We can shovel lights all over the place, and then we can photoshop the crap out of the picture. It's busywork designed to make the photographer feel valued.

It certainly creates a look, to be fair. An ugly, fake, cookie-cutter look. A look that renders a pleasant picture that does not even pretend to reveal the sitter's personality, it only makes them "look good" in some sense.


(and no, just because she is smiling and holding a tennis racquet, her "true personality" is not being revealed. that is a lie we tell ourselves.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


This is a little drum I have beaten in one form or another before: Whence Inspiration for instance, and also How To Art, but my thinking has evolved a little, as it does.

All this business of sterile pictures about nothing is really about pictures that don't have an Idea (in the sense of the How To Art piece).

A concept, an idea, something to be conveyed. That is literally the entire point of any kind of Art with a capital A, as well as lots of other genres of photography (fashion, journalism, at least). Without an idea you're just doing exercises, or possibly making decor. I've made a lot of decor in my time, and at the time it seemed OK. It doesn't any more.

So, for me, at this moment in time, pre-visualization is almost entirely about the Idea, the concept. What am I trying to convey here, with this photograph which I am shooting right now? And, how can I accomplish that?

This pushes you past the point of simply copying things. You might copy something, but for a purpose. You might absolutely lift a method, a juxtaposition, a style. Absolutely. You almost certainly will. But it won't be merely to copy someone else's picture. You won't be making fake Ansel Adams pictures, you'll be making your own pictures using his methods. You might be saying essentially the same thing as Adams was, and that's OK.

Tell my how awesome, how sublime, that mountain is, that tree is, that river. But you tell me that. Don't just ape Ansel Adams because his photoz are teh awezome.

The point is that you're saying your own thing, using the toolbox of methods we all share.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


I find myself increasingly noticing and being frustrated with what are really quite good pictures.

You've probably seen a lot of these things. They're often strongly geometrical, pleasing to the eye. They're balanced and well organized. Often they're very clean. Sometimes they're architecture, found objects. Less often they're people or landscapes. The common thread is that they're emotionally empty.

Sometimes it's simply that the thing is overdone. There was a good visual idea here, but we've seen every conceivably variation on that theme, and we're done. Sometimes, more often, it's that there's just no point to the thing. Yes, the triangular form created by the building balances with the hard oblong shadow diagonally opposed, creating a strong and pleasing geometry. But so what? What the hell are you trying to say here? This makes me feel nothing, it shows me nothing, it reveals nothing.

Some of these things are quite virtuoso. All the technical details are there, the framing is perfect, the management of color and tone is terrific.

But there's nothing there. There's no soul, there's no passion, there's no heart hammering violently away inside the thing.

This is a vague and personal thing, to be sure. What seems dead to me might well breathe fire for you, but somehow, I don't think that's very common. I think you and I would agree more often than not on what has heart and what doesn't. You might be more willing to like a virtuoso picture with little heart than I am, but that's quite a different thing.

Here's some examples:

I have showcased this one before with basically the same commentary:

I shot this thing specifically to be liked by people on internet forums. It's an exercise in form, color, line. It's pleasing. I got some minor quibbles of feedback about sharpness this, color that, framing the other, or something. It was a while back. Nobody, but nobody, pointed out that it's a dead, soulless fucking nightmare. Focus this? Clone that? Stand closer? There's no saving this fucking thing. It's a pointless exercise in composition. It says nothing, it means nothing. If it makes you feel, the best we can hope for is that it makes you feel vaguely happy, on account of, pretty!

Here's something I shot more recently:

This thing is potentially part of a larger essay on intensity and authenticity I'm working on. This would likely be panned on any sort of photo sharing web site. Most people would comment that it's all blurry. I might get a few things about "liking the tones" or "good use of wide angle" or "cool car" but nobody would say anything like:

That picture has balls
That picture sits on your chest and punches you in the face

which is more what I'm after. Whether or not you think any of those things, I think them. It's not the best thing I've shot in the series, but it's pretty decent for my purposes. It hits the notes I want hit, and it's got some soul, some intensity. Which is, after all, the point.

This is why, basically, I am so set on concept these days. I want to understand how my pictures can have at least a little passion, a little soul. I think that, first, I must have it. And then I must try to take pictures that embody my passion, my emotion. Somehow.

Friday, December 5, 2014

I Hate LuLa

This is totally out of line and unprofessional. But guess what, I'm not a professional.

I hate LuLa. Every article on there is either fanwank (ooo, Leica, sooo worth it); some sort of techwank explaining why some arcane, silly, and sometimes just wrong, approach to something is the best (ETTR is sooooo a good idea); or worst of all some sort of walkthrough about how to use a ton of photoshop to crush the life out of some perfectly innocent, if boring, picture (watch me turn this generic landscape into a hideous fairyland).

The photographs are all perfect exemplars of the technically virtuoso pictures of nothing. They're dead, they say nothing, they mean nothing. To be fair, some of the main guys sell plenty of these horrible zombie things, but they sell them because they match somebody's couch, and because they're pretty, and because they're expensive. These guys can go to friggin' Antarctica and come back with a bunch of photos of ice.

Sometimes it seems, although it's not literally true, as if every essay is selling something. There's no denying that these guys are all hustling hucksters. Yes, they're selling some photos, but mostly they're selling workshops, photo taking trips abroad, DVDs, books, and one imagines, their own parents. They should run some workshops on how to sell workshops, since that's what they actually seem to be good at.

There's also the sniff of scam about the whole thing, to my sensitive nose. They love damn near everything they review. Of course, no money changes hands. But that's not the point. If you haven't got a lot of beef in the industry, bad reviews will cause you to lose access. They'll simply stop sending you equipment to test. Since clicks are LuLa's life blood, and gear reviews are easily the top click-getters, well, you can do the math.

Then there's the endowment thing, which I'm pretty confident they're not stealing anything from or even paying themselves salaries out of, but it's yet another relatively easy way to get clicks. Open applications for grants! Just click here, and here and fill it out. Everyone, come on over and apply. More content, more clicks, more everything. Drive that traffic. And traffic is life. Traffic is money.

Who got selected for an all expenses paid (or something) trip to Antarctica with a bunch of older portly dudes? By a coincidence, she's a very attractive young woman.

It's not auto-generated clickbait. It's lovingly hand-crafted artisanal clickbait. Which I guess is actually kind of sad.

The forums are pretty ok though. I almost never touch the front page, and when I do, I am usually nauseated and angry in a few minutes.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Legacy? No.

A pretty common theme I see here and there among photographers is that they're shooting to create a legacy, to leave something behind to be remembered for.

I suspect this is yet another terrible thing we can ascribe, largely, to Ansel Adams. His writings go on obsessively about archival processing, and making sure that your negatives and prints will last for decades or centuries. I think this has evolved into a sort of undercurrent, in photography, that photographs should be permanent objects. Your pictures will be, if you are good and live a blameless life, granted eternal life and you will live on forever.

This is idiotic on several fronts.

First and foremost it's not going to happen. Nobody cares all that much about your photos. There are a billion photographers on the planet today, in 100 years the general population might remember one or two. Art history nerds might remember ten or twenty. Maybe even a hundred. The odds are profoundly against you. Also, if you're concerned about a legacy the probability goes up, to 1.0, that you will not be amongst the favored few (see the sequel for why).

Secondly, if you're shooting for a legacy, you're not shooting because you must. You're not shooting because you have something to say that has to get out. Great artists, even good artists, even terrible artists, don't make art for a legacy. Spend a few minutes with google, dig up some interviews with artists, dig up some "we asked 10 artists why they do the thing they do" pieces. There's tons of them out there. I defy you to find a single artist who says they're doing it to create a legacy.

If you're not shooting because you have something to say, then you definitely won't be remembered by anyone in 100 years. Because you had nothing to say.

You can argue, and I have seen it done, that well the legacy is really just for friends and family. These people will remember you anyways, you don't need to leave behind a bunch of prints that they will hang out of habit or because they feel they really ought to, until a new spouse makes them take the prints down and put up something else, and then the prints languish in a storage unit until they get wet and then they get thrown out.

Be remembered for being amusing, for telling great jokes, for being the best uncle ever, for your amazing pies. Don't be remembered as the guy who foisted a bunch of boring photographs off on succeeding generations.

Shoot because you must. Shoot because you lust to create. Shoot because you love cameras. Shoot because it gives you something to do with your hands. Shoot because you're shy and the camera gives you something to hide behind. Shoot for any reason except to create a legacy.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Transformation versus um, not

So you're someplace, and you're trying to follow my instructions. You don't want to just take a picture of the thing, you want a concept, some idea to realize with the camera. How do you get yourself a concept? I've talked about this in months and years gone by, in a series on inspiration and pre-visualization. Here's another take on it.

This isn't the only way to break it down, but it's one way.

You can take a transformative approach, and realize whatever it is as something it is not. Something you can imagine, but something which is not what the thing is. You might want to photograph a supermarket aisle as a circle of hell, perhaps. Perhaps it makes you feel like you're in hell, but it's not all that hellish in reality. How can you transform it into a hellish vision? What specific photographic choices would you make? Where should you place the camera, what length of lens should you use, do you need props? Actors? And so on.

At the other end of a spectrum here is.. the other thing. I haven't thought of a good word for it, so it's "not transformative". You're trying to photograph it as it is. How can you shoot that supermarket aisle to show what it truly is? What is it, truly, anyways? And what kind of photographic choices can you make to bring that out?

This is a spectrum. Rarely is a photograph 100% non-transformative, although the news media would surely want us to believe that theirs are.

Also, it applies to more than places. Events, people, grounds, objects. These can all be handled in the same sort of way.

Does it matter? Not really. It is not a requirement to measure the degree to which a concept transforms the scene. Still, it is useful, I think, to consider that a concept is permitted to transform to a degree. Possibly, by considering the spectrum described here, a concept can be helped to reveal itself.

Monday, December 1, 2014

How Do I Find That Photograph?

So you're looking at something, and you think there might be a picture there.

A lot of people point their camera at it and push the button and they're done. Or they think for a second about shit like leading lines and isolating the subject, or whatever. They make some compositional choices based on what they know, and they do that, and then they push the button.

That will certainly expose a sensing system of some sort, but it's only going to make a photograph by accident.

Why do you think there's a picture there? How does it make you feel? What should it make you feel? What could it make you feel?

Let's say you see a gorgeous landscape. Great.

If you're a 500px photographer looking for upvotes, you're going to get a tripod, go somewhere hard to get to in hopes that your picture won't be an exact copy of someone else's, you're going to screw your Lee Big Stopper on the lens, you're going to take about a 60 second exposure. Then you're going to clean it up to the nines, push the greens to the limit, and post that piece of shit. And maybe you'll get a bunch of upvotes.

If you're me, maybe you take a few documentation shots just to remember what it looks like for later. You're going to think about it. What could this be? Could this be a gothic nightmare? A sun-drenched fairyland (see also: 500px photographer)? Is it majestic or bucolic? Is it beautiful, mundane, or both? Is it a maze of cliches? What's my concept here?

If there's no concept, there's no picture. Screw that. I have better things to do than make copies of photographs. I could, sure. But what would be the point?

If there is a concept, what am I going to need to make it happen? How do I present gothic, or bucolic, or cliched? How am I going to shoot that landscape, instead of the one I see in my documentation shots, instead of the ones I see on 500px?

What technical and compositional choices can I make to produce something that might hit the concept? What equipment will I need to execute those?

Then, if you're me, you go out and you do that. Probably you try several times. Quite likely the concept does not survive, but mutates, and becomes something related to the original but different. Sometimes the concept mutates into something non-viable, and it dies. That's OK too.

This is how Ansel Adams worked, essentially. Sometimes it took a couple years to get the shot that carried the concept. It worked out pretty often for Ansel. He was pretty stingy with the shutter button.

This is how Henri Cartier-Bresson worked, but it never took very long. And a lot of the time it didn't work out. Henri was pretty button-happy.

That's how you make photographs instead of copies of photos, or just random crummy assemblages of color.

At any rate, it's one way to do it.

I'll be breaking down the process a bit more in upcoming posts. I have more to say.