Everyone sees the world in a particular way. Everyone cares about some things more than others. Everyone has different tastes and desires. Those will grow and change with you. What matters is that you claim that vision and find ways to express it.
Making Images About, Not Of
In identifying the heart of an image, or that thing you wanted to say, your vision matters a great deal. Without vision, you can’t make all the subsequent decisions. None of this can be done without knowing what your image is about in the first place.
Being Present & Receptive
As counterintuitive as this sounds, it is not the first job of the photographer to make photographs. The first task of the photographer is to see. To notice. To observe. The best photographs have nothing to do with technique.
Learning to See Light
Light and time are the most fundamental of our raw materials. Light is especially of interest to the photographer because it has so many facets and can be used and controlled in so many ways. But time is linear and has fewer ways to creatively control it.
Choosing Stronger Moments
Not every photograph stands or falls on the power of one chosen moment over another, but many do, and one of the most important lessons I photographer can begin to learn is to wait for, anticipate, or set the stage for stronger moments.
Choose Your Constraints
Creativity matters deeply. It’s HOW we do what we do. You thought how we did photography had something to do with buttons and dials and stuff. That’s how you use a camera. How you make photographs is a creative endeavour, not a technical one.
Welcome to the Vision Collective. This is the first of 26 lessons and I want to take a little time to introduce the idea behind this course.
There is a lot of information out there for photographers. In fact, there might be too much information. And so much of it is completely without context and often it’s without much vision or passion. That’s where mentoring is so helpful, and while mentoring isn’t really scaleable, I wanted to try anyways, to create a connection between other photographers (almost seven thousand of you, as it turns out) and me - and walk together through a somewhat organic curriculum designed to restore some passion and bring some context, heart, and action to all the technical information out there.
For most of us, and I include myself in this, our problem is not a lack of technical information. We already know how to focus and expose. What we struggle with is the bigger stuff: vision, story, visual language, and composition. We struggle with knowing where our work fits in the short but rich history of the photographic arts. And, if we’re honest, we struggle with just getting on with it, and making meaningful work.
What I’m going to ask you to do with me in the following 26 weeks is focus your efforts. I'm going to ask you to give a damn about things bigger than just technical competence, which is always going to be part of the onward journey. If you wait until you have mastered every technical aspect of photography before you begin diving deeper into this craft, it will never happen.
Now is the time.
I want to begin the course with a short discussion of vision. I have given a lot of thought to this subject. I have written at great length about it and don’t want to drag this on. So I’m going to use questions. Whether you answer them or not is up to you. But I’m going to use questions a lot in this course. Good questions are invaluable.
First, I believe that everyone as vision. Everyone sees the world in a particular way. Everyone cares about some things more than others. Everyone has different tastes and desires. Those will grow and change with you. What matters is that you claim that vision and find ways to express it.
What do you love enough to spend your short life, or your limited free time, photographing?
What are you curious about? Enough to spend hours looking at it through your camera?
What photographs by other photographers most resonate with you? Why?
You didn’t skip over that last one did you? "Why?” is the most important question of all? Do you have books of photographs? What is it in those images that you most love? Is it something about the lines, the light, the kinds of moments represented? Is it the use of colour? Is it the subject matter? Is it how that subject is represented? All of these are clues to your own vision.
Look through the last year of your work. What commonalities do you see in the work? What themes repeat themselves? Which images do you love? Why?
You get bonus points if you start writing this down. I use a small Moleskine notebook and I’m always jotting ideas and thoughts down. Think about this stuff. Wrestle with finding answers. The clues are there. It’s more important that you look for your vision than it is that you find it. Why does it matter at all? Because if, as the old tired saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, then we must begin with something to say with those thousand words. Something to express.
What’s important to you? Leave the rest.
Second, you don’t have to have your vision figured out before exploring it. It's often much more a journey of discovery more than it is a specific, and known, destination. All you need is a clue. If you’ve got any answers at all to the questions I’ve asked you then you have enough to begin exploring. The best photographers I know are curious and they run with half-baked ideas all the time. But they start. They begin. They don’t just waffle with a list of maybes and what-ifs. Start now to explore your vision with the camera. The camera is good at this stuff. Pick three ideas. Or one. Now get on with it. How? Keep reading.
Over the following 26 lessons create a body of work - twelve images - that explore one aspect of your vision. Is it your kids? Is it the importance of home? Is it your dog? Is it portraits of friends and family? Whatever it is, you better care deeply about it, or be deeply curious about it. I’ll talk later about bodies of work and personal projects, but for now, just begin. I can’t do this for you. But your deadline is May 01. 12 images that work together to explore that one thing. Start now. Don't ask how, there are no rules. The exercise is that you do it, and that you do it your way, not that you do it right.
The images above are from a larger personal project I undertook recently in Italy, exploring the waking up of a city, which in turn lead me to explore the going to bed of a city - the rhythms of a city at the edges of day. I focused on silhouettes, shadows, reflections, and bright colours. There was no magic and I had no idea if I could pull it off or not - just a whim and some commitment to do it.
Study the Masters
Every week I’m going to introduce you to a new photographer, most of them from a generation or more before us. I do this in hopes of directing your attention away from contemporaries with whom it’s so easy to compare ourselves, and I do it to help you begin accumulating a visual vocabulary broader than your own sphere of influence of Instagram feed.
This week I want to introduce you to a contemporary, a French photographer named Vincent Munier. Vincent is a wildlife photographer and you can see his work on his website. Spend 30 minutes looking at it in context of this conversation about vision. What does Vincent care about? In what particular ways does he see his world? What commonalities are in his compositions and use of colour? What do you think is strong about his work? Visually speaking, pay particular attention to his composition and his consistent use of scale and isolation. And, related to the creative exercise I just gave you, note how his photographs work so well together with each other as cohesive bodies of work. If you have a spare 10 minutes, watch this beautiful video on Vimeo about Vincent and his work, Arctique.
Each lesson will close with a few resources to follow up on as you have time.
Read this article about Personal Work.Read this article about finding your vision, and this follow up to that article. Read the Helsinki Bus Station Theory Article.Consider reading my short eBook, The Vision Driven Photographer.
Two Last Things
Thank you so much for trusting me with this part of your journey. I’m going to ask you to do something hard and I’m hoping you’ll consider doing it. While you’re doing this course would you consider narrowing your focus on your photography education? I know I’m not mentoring you directly, but most of us have only so much attention we can give to things. So we spread it around. Which means there’s a good chance many will glance over this lesson, look for a few nuggets, and move on. This isn’t that kind of course, and if you approach it that way you’re not going to get the most benefit out of it. The benefit is in the narrowing of focus, exploring the questions I ask, and studying the work of the photographers I introduce you to. There’s no magic. The work on this course isn’t mine - all I have to do is spend a couple hours writing a lesson. The work is yours. If there's magic at all, it's in doing the work. Most of us don’t have time to do all this, think deeply about it, and still read every blog and photography magazine out there. It’s just an idea, but I hope you’ll try it: give yourself a break from all those other voices for a while.
Lastly, here is my commitment to you: I am going to pour my heart into this. I’ll write about what I know and deeply believe to matter when it comes to making great photographs. And I won’t hold back. Which means I’m going to come off as opinionated once in a while. I might swear. I’m getting old enough that I’d rather be genuine and passionate than polite to a fault. It won’t be my intention to offend you. I promise. But I care too much about this to pussy foot around. Don’t, however, mistake my passion for belief that my way is the only way. Test my ideas. Adapt them to your way of seeing the world. Disagree with me. Art is not about consensus. Take what is useful to you, leave the rest.
Thank you again. See you next week. Now get to work on that assignment.
Begin now. That’s where the magic is. You learn this craft as much with your hands as with your head, if not more.
Making Deeper Images
Right from the start I want you to begin asking yourself this one over-arching question: "What do I want from my photographs?" There will probably be several different answers. But most of them will come down to two things: how others experience them, and how you experience them, and how those experiences can be stronger, deeper, more interesting, more human.
I doubt very much that your hope for these weekly emails from me is that I help you make more photographs, but that you make stronger, deeper, photographs. What would deeper mean to you?
I want to suggest three ways you can make your images deeper. But first I want you to consider making fewer final photographs. I want you to consider demanding more from each final frame and being choosier about what you show to the world. I think that’s one reason some of the photographers we admire seem to have such strong work; we see less of their sketch images. They probably make many, many more images as they sketch their way through the creative process. But they show many fewer of them. That alone will improve your photography. It will help you focus, and it will help you practice the discipline of looking for only the best frames. It will free you to stop polishing your turds in Lightroom or Photoshop in hopes that you can rescue the image you know falls short. It will free you from the manic need to post, post, post something—ANYTHING—to social media. Slow down. Post less. Be pickier.
Ok, three ways to make deeper images.
Care More. This was, in part, the subject of last week’s email, and it’s going to keep coming back. Life is too short for you to spend time making photographs of things you don’t care about, things that don’t excite you or pique your curiosity. And my own life is way too short to spend it looking at the uninspiring work of uninspired photographers. If you don’t want to laugh about it or cry about it, find something you care more deeply about. That alone will change your photography. It’ll also help you slow down and focus.
Look Deeper. Most of us skim the surface of things. We look, we shoot. We move on. When I teach my Mentor Series Workshops in places like Italy or India I tell my students to stop moving around so much, to park themselves in one place and really look. And they nod their heads the first time and think I mean sticking it out a moment or two longer. A couple more minutes, maybe. It takes them a while to get it, to see that I mean thirty minutes or an hour, and to come back time and time again. Being patient and receptive is not the work of a moment. The best photographers are present and they look much deeper. That takes time. And it’s not the work of the eyes only but of the mind. What are you really seeing? What’s going on in the scene? Where is the light playing? Where are the lines leading? And how many sketches can you make from this one opportunity? Most of us give up too quickly.
Go Universal. If you want people to care about your images, make your images about things people care about. The deeper, more human and universal, the better. This applies to every area of creative photography I can think of. Are you a sports photographer? Great. Stop making images that are only about the local football team. Make them about that, for sure. But also make them about the companionship of a shared defeat or victory. Make them about the conflict between two opposing sides. Show me raw emotion and great strength. I don’t give a shit about football. When you make the image of a moment in a football game that makes me take notice and feel something, that’s the deeper image. I’ll discuss this next week when I look more closely at the idea of Of vs. About. For now, just ask yourself the questions: what moment do I need to find that will make someone who doesn’t know the bride and groom care, or feel something? What kind of photograph do you need to make of your cat, your brother, or the backyard to which I’ve never been that will make me interested, make me laugh, make me care? The best photographers have been doing this since they started making iconic images.
Change Your Perspective. If you want to change my perspective as a viewer, you need to change your own. That means helping me see things differently. Give me new information. Tell me a story from a side I never anticipated. You can also make deeper images spatially. So many of us started using longer lenses the moment we could. They’re a lot easier to use but they flatten things, and that’s not the way we experience the world. We see the world with incredibly peripheral vision; we live in three dimensions and the photograph robs us of that unless we put it back in. That’s where a wide-angle lens comes in. A wide-angle lens exaggerates the lines in a scene (if we let it—the closer you get to those lines the more energy you’ll give them.) But it does another thing; it forces you to get close if you want the elements in the scene to be larger than an ant. You get closer and you become more involved in the scene itself. The scene begins to enfold you, and foreground elements get larger relative to background elements and the images take on that illusion of depth. There’s nothing wrong with longer lens images, but they tend to be a little more graphic. They isolate (and that’s a powerful tool), but for re-introducing the idea of depth and illusion of three-dimensionality, nothing does it like getting in close with a wide-angle lens.
Made in Old Havana several years ago, this image is a great example of using a wide-angle lens up close to exaggerate the lines and effects of perspective. No other lens will give you this same feeling, but you have to get in close.
Become familiar with the tools useful in creating visual depth in images. This is about the feeling, or experience of depth. Go out with the camera, or look at some of your own images made with a wider lens (16-24mm) and play with the following questions, knowing that your answers will be different than others:
How does a tighter or shallow depth of field change your own experience of depth in an image?How does a strong foreground element add a greater sense of depth?What about leading lines that take your eye to a vanishing point?
Use all your lenses. Which ones are better are creating depth than others? Now combine some of those visual tools with a subject you care deeply about, and spend more time immersed in that scene making images that are about something more than what you see on the surface. You could spend a year focusing on just this one exercise.
Study the Masters
Sebastião Salgado is one of my favourite photographers and a good one to introduce to you in connection with this week's subject. Salgado cares deeply about the work he does and the subjects he tackles. His use of wide-angle lenses, close POV (point of view or camera position), and choice of emotionally poignant moments makes his photographs an excellent study. Choose 12 of Sebastião’s images from the Workers series and ask yourself how he approaches depth in a visual sense. How close was he? How wide (angle) do you think his lens was? How did he use lines and composition to increase the spatial depth of the image and make you feel more included in the scene? Do you identify with his characters? Do you empathize and therefore feel a deeper emotional response?
If this topic interests you, consider reading my eBook, A Deeper Frame, Creating Deeper Photographs and More Engaging Experiences.Read this article, Creating Depth in Art and Photography.
This article, 11 Ways to Add Depth to A Design, might be a little more than you’re looking for, but it’s got some excellent ideas about the cues we use to understand and experience visual depth.
Here's a great print interview with Sebastiao Salgado, from POV Magazine.
Lastly, if you want more Salgado, I have these two books on my shelf and they're among my favourite possessions: Genesis and Workers.
I hope the time you're spending on this is challenging you. Some of it, especially the first several emails, will be more theoretical, and some of it more technical. But it all ties together in the pursuit of more intentionally made, compelling photographs. Ultimately, the best thing you can do is go make photographs and figure this stuff out with a camera in your hands. I hope you'll put in the work to do that. See you next week.
Making Images About, Not Of
In identifying the heart of an image, or that thing you wanted to say or visually point to, your vision matters a great deal. Without vision, you can’t make all the subsequent decisions about which lens to use, what to include or exclude, which shutter speed to use, or how to compose. None of this can be done without knowing what your image is about in the first place.
That’s where the distinction between what an image is of and what an image is about can be so helpful. Knowing what an image is of (e.g., Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl) is easy; it’s a girl. But knowing what you want the image to be about—that’s harder. If the portrait of the Afghan Girl was about a playful little girl (it's not, but imagine it is), then the choices about which moment to choose, how to frame the shot, what to include or exclude, would all be different than the choices made if you know knew the real subject was about the human toll of the war in Afghanistan, the plight of refugees, and the determined strength of one girl in the midst of that.
The image at the top of this email is of Gabbra women dancing in Northern Kenya, but I wanted it to be about community and celebration and the strength of these women. So I shot ultra wide to create an encompassing arc of the women, got low for an empowering POV, and cranked the aperture tight to give me that starburst, which feels hopeful to me. I could have shot this scene tighter, higher, or with some motion blur, but my desire to create a specific feeling—a specific story—guided me to the choices I made.
Another example I use a lot is kids in the back yard playing. Your choices will be different if you know that you want to capture the bond between siblings or their playfulness rather than about the way one of them always ends up playing quietly on his own. If you photograph sports, you'll make different choices if you know the image is about the desperation of a losing team in the final seconds of the game, or about the thrill of victory. If it’s wildlife you photograph, you'll make different decisions if you want the image to be about the bear himself, the bear in harmony with the land in which he lives, or the bear struggling to survive and pulling salmon from a river.
I’m a big advocate of a very intentional approach to photography, and I believe that part of what makes an artist is the decision to tell this story, and not that one. Or to tell both but to do so very intentionally, making choices to best express our own vision or point of view on the scene before us. Each scene could have a dozen stories in it, but not all of those will resonate with you. They won’t all matter in the same way to you as they will to another. So pick the ones that matter to you. Focus on those. Find moments that gives those scenes (and the stories therein) their best expression. Pick your POV (point of view) to strengthen the story. Choose a lens that will pull the things you need to isolate, or create the feeling you need to create. The same goes for apertures and shutter speeds and composition. But you have to know what the image is about. That might be a story, a theme, an emotion, or something more abstract like grace, elegance, decay, or serenity. Whatever it is, start thinking in those terms and you’ll begin making clearer decisions about how to express the “about” of your image.
Look at the three images below. You can do this with your own favourite images as well. What do you think they are about? What decisions did the photographer make that lead you to think so? Is it the lens? The POV? The colour palette? The moment?
This image (part of a larger series about Venice waking up that I mentioned in Week One) is about the loneliness of the commute. The cool colours, the wider lens that allows the lone figure to be truly alone, even the choice of moment as he gazes to the empty ticket office all help create this mood and reinforce what the image is about. Not everyone will read it the way I intended, but none of us can do much more than to be as intentional as we can and make the image that works first for ourselves.
This image is about devotion and distraction. Watching the child and his grandmother in this mosque gave me a strong sense of the two competing ideas: the one so focused on heaven, the other so focused on earth. Having a sense that this might be a possibility, I waited until the moment happened. And then the child started crying, so what the photographs then would have been about would have been much different.
I spent hours in this little fishing village in Italy, waiting for the moment when the sun went down and the blue hour started. I wanted an image that was about the mood and emotion, the serenity and the romance, and that determined my choices. And in this case, specifically the choice of when to photograph and how long to keep the shutter open.
Study the Masters
I know I initially told you I’d be pointing you to photographers that were not contemporaries, but you need to see the work of Edward Burtynsky. Burtynsky focuses on industrial landscapes. His work is of highways and pit mines and quarries and polluted rivers, but it is about the impact of man on his environment. It's the kind of work that needs to really be seen on a large scale; it's beautiful and intricate and terrifying at the same time. Burtynsky is an excellent example of an artist whose work is powerfully about something without becoming propaganda. Here is a link to a Google image search for his Water series and his Oil series. As you study this work, ask yourself what role repeated elements and scale play in the images, and pay particular attention to his very intentional use of colour.
Here are a few resources to follow up on as you have time.
Here's a great Ted talk by Burtynsky about his work. Worth watching if you want a little more insight into what motivates this man's work.
Here are three books by Burtynsky, all of them stunning. Manufactured Landscapes, Oil, and Water. I'm going to link you to a lot of books over the coming weeks. I think one of the best investments any of us can make in our growth as photographers is to study photographs. We read a lot of words and watch tutorials, but it's photographs themselves that will teach us the most. You can study them free online, but there's something about having a book and moving from image to image that I find helps me retain what I learn so much better.
Not every image is about something in a very specific way. By introducing this idea, I'm not asking you to overthink this stuff, because when we overthink it our work often suffers. I'm just hoping you'll dig a little deeper, that when you react to a scene with, "Oh my God, look at that!" you can be a little more specific about what that is, and what you think and feel about that.
Being Present & Receptive
As counterintuitive as this sounds, it is not the first job of the photographer to make photographs. The first task of the photographer is to see. To notice. To observe. Like so much in the craft and art of photography, the best photographs have nothing to do with technique, and when technique does help the image succeed (as it often does), it is only because the image was first conceived by a creative, receptive, and present mind.
Become more perceptive and you will become a better photographer. But how? Slow down. Just slow down.
There is a difference between looking and seeing. Looking is active and has as its goal something to be found. We are often so eager to score, to find the photograph, that we don’t see. Looking that actively has a way of putting on the blinders. Looking is often the opposite of being open and receptive.
Being open and receptive means you go in empty. You approach the wedding, the event, or the portrait session with the intent of receiving what comes your way, not of finding something particular. It’s a state of mind and it’s hard to describe how to achieve it other than to tell you I approach it in two steps after I slow down and take a breath.
Step One The first is to identify my expectations. If I’m looking for something, hoping for something, what is it? Don’t dismiss it, acknowledge it. The problem with expectations is that they blind us. We think we want a particular photograph of a particular thing, but that particular photograph might not be the strongest one. A better angle might present itself, or a better moment, stronger light, whatever. But if we’re too stuck on what we think is the best expression of the thing we’re photographing, we could miss the other potentially stronger possibilities. So acknowledge what you want, but be open to other ways of getting it.
Step Two The second is to ask a lot of questions. When we go in with all the answers we close ourselves to the creative possibilities that might otherwise lead us to stronger images. When we go in with questions, we open ourselves to the same. What happens if I shoot from the other side, or from high or low? What happens if I use a totally different lens or shutter speed? Is this the right moment or is there a better one coming? What would that look like? Questions. Not looking for answers, but for interesting possibilities.
Don’t skip this stuff. After 30 years with a camera in my hand, I know how seductive the hardware and the gear is, and while it's true you need to learn how to use that stuff, it will only ever take you as far as the more human aspects of this craft can. If you learn how to slow down, to really see what you’re looking at—not what you’re looking for—you will be so much closer to being able to put that into your photography.
Sitting in the cold rain waiting for grizzly bears, you have a lot of time to see things you might otherwise miss. These long periods of attentive waiting have not only taught me more about the power of receptivity and patience, but they've resulted in some unexpected photographs. Our expectations are sometimes our worst enemies.
This is something I often ask my students to consider doing while on a Mentor Series Workshop with me: find a location you like and wait, and watch. Not for five minutes, not for twenty, but for an hour or more. I know, right now you think you'll lose your mind from boredom, and truthfully, it's not the easiest exercise. If I were a betting man I'd say of the 7000+ people getting this course, only the tiniest fraction of you will do it. And that's a shame. Because sitting for an hour in one place, and really paying attention (with or without a camera in your hand) will show you so much. You'll see things you never imagined on your first glance. And it will, I hope, show you how much you miss on first glances. It will show you how ridiculous is the notion that we can show up at a scene and trust the first thing our eyes see to contain all the possibilities we've seen by the end of an hour. Bonus points if you actually do this one, friends. A whole hour. Don't cheat. There are no shortcuts to this stuff.
Study the Masters
Fan Ho (1937 - 2016) was a Chinese photographer, director, and actor. His list of accolades and awards accumulated before his death in June of 2016 is astonishing, but to me, it's almost irrelevant next to his incredible images. Sadly, books of his work are hard to come by; they all seem to be out of print and fetching high sums, but there is allegedly a new book in process. To my eye, his work is a perfect, elegant intersection of moments well seen and composed. I find his sense of geometry is exquisite, and his use of white space, scale, contrast, and framing is perfect. His later work with multiple exposures is stunning. Take some time to enjoy and study his images and pay particular attention to his exact timing and obvious love of the decisive moment.
You will find the work of Fan Ho on his website, as well as through this Google Image search.
Here's a wonderful video about Fan Ho (15 minutes) from The Art of Photography. If you follow no other link, follow this one.
Here's a nice article on PetaPixel about Fan Ho.
Here are a few resources to follow up on as you have time.
Paying Attention, an article I wrote in July 2016.
Receptive and Observant, an article I wrote for my column in PhotoLife magazine in 2015.
Find the Magic, a blog I wrote in December 2015.
Vision 365, an eBook from Henri Fernando that is like a daily guided meditation or daily practice in seeing. It's only $8 and it'll give you a new exercise in seeing every day for a year.
Next week I want to extend this conversation about being receptive and observant to learning to see and understand light. Until then, I hope you're finding some traction on that personal project I asked you to consider undertaking on Week One.
Learning to See Light
Several years ago, I decided I would spend an entire year learning about light. I read what I could, began to experiment with strobes, and unpacked the idea of light as best I could. At the end of that year, I realized I had only scratched the surface. I am still learning.
Light and time are the most fundamental of our raw materials. Light is especially of interest to the photographer because it has so many facets and can be used and controlled in so many ways. But time (at least as we experience it) is linear and has fewer ways to creatively control it. We have strobes to create and modify light; we have no such tool with time.
That year of learning to see light ended up splitting itself neatly in two. I spent half my efforts learning to see light as best as the human eye can experience it—the quality and directionality of it—and half my efforts learning to see light as the camera sees it. The two are often quite different, and if we can learn to understand both (particularly the way the camera sees light), we are that much closer to mastering our craft.
This is a massive topic. I can’t distill the lessons of that year, nor the years since then, into one email. A book, perhaps. But I can suggest you begin that study for yourself, and point out the highlights that have stuck with me.
The soft light here allows the colours to remain vibrant and allows the scene to play out without the distractions of shadows.
Open your eyes
When it comes to light, you really don’t need a book to understand it in relation to the photograph: you need to open your eyes. There’s no secret setting on light; it’s all visible. If it can be seen, it can be recorded with the camera. And it can be observed and learned. One of the most useful exercises I’ve asked students to do: put one hand in front of your face in different light, on cloudy days, on bright sunny days, and at different times of day. Now turn your whole body 360 degrees and watch your hand. Watch as the light moves around your hand; watch where the shadows fall. How hard are those shadows, how distinct or soft? How long are they? At what point is the palm of your hand almost completely in its own shadow, just licked by light around the edges? Do you see that lick of light? This is the beginning of paying attention to light for some of you. In a year, you should be so attuned to light that when you’re driving or walking down the street you're thinking, "Look at that light!" Take a minute several times a day and ask yourself these questions: What is the light doing? Where is it coming from? Is it high or low, to the side, or from the back? Is it reflecting off something? Hold a leaf to the sun; how do the colours change when the light is shining on the leaf and then when the sun is shining through the leaf? Observe, observe, observe.
Walking past this man in India, it was the light that pulled me in, the way it came in hard in one spot, bounced around, lit his face, deepened the colours on the wall, even glancing off his cell phone to create the small rectangle of white on the wall.
In addition to observing the light and what it’s doing, add this new question to your studies: what is the light giving me? Is it changing the colour in a scene? Is it creating long shadows that can be used as compositional elements? What about reflections? Another way to ask this question is: How can I use this light? Describe it. Is it soft and moody? Is it dramatic? We talk so much about great light and sometimes about lousy light, but that kind of talk shows a lack of creativity and imagination.
There is an upside to all different kinds of light. It might not particularly match your vision, but you can use it. Recently I was doing my personal project in Italy and depended heavily on early morning light and the hard shadows it created. On foggy or otherwise un-sunny mornings, there was soft light that didn’t help much with the specific project I was working on, but allowed me to work on other images that were equally moody. Forget good light. Forget bad light. You can do better than that. Describe the light. What’s it bringing to the table? Mood? What kind of mood? What colour? Drama? How so? Perhaps that bright sun at high noon is creating muted, gross colours. That’s a great time to consider making monochrome images and focusing on those great shadows and leveraging the power of a dynamic range too broad for your camera to handle.
In the image on the left, the sun was hard and bright, hitting the wall to the left and out of frame; that light bounced around the warm tunnel giving me lovely shape and colour, but it was the contrast with the far building so blue against the warm foreground that I loved the most. The image on the right was just blue. That's how fog looks, but you might miss it if you're seeing "fog" and not "blue." Know what I mean?
We Do Not See as the Camera Sees
There’s a lot of talk these days about high dynamic range (HDR) imaging. Some of it is focused on digital sensors that can capture a broader range of light from deepest shadow to brightest highlight. And some of it is focused on software solutions for reclaiming that broad range. Digital sensors are now incapable of capturing the full range of visible light. So what we see—and how our brain interprets what we see—is so often not at all what the camera sees. This is your next task. On a cloudy day it won’t be much of a challenge. But what do you do when the sun breaks through in a beam and hits that barn on the horizon? How do you expose for that? This is not the technical challenge it’s often made out to be: it’s a creative challenge best answered by asking, "In what ways does the camera see this scene?"
Answering that question is easy. Make several exposures of the scene. Make one that exposes for the dark details, letting you see into the shadows and blowing out the highlights. Make a couple in the middle that are something of a compromise. Then make one that allows those shadows to go dark, even black, but exposes for the brightest spots, losing no detail in those areas. This is the constrain of digital photography. Yes, you can blend those layers together in Photoshop, but forget that for a moment. See this constraint for the creative possibility that it is. The camera can see this scene in several ways; does one of those ways feel right to you?
Look at the image below. It was made in Venice just as the sun was coming up. Shooting into the light, with the sun bouncing off the cobblestones was a challenge if I wanted to keep the details in the shadows. But I didn’t. I couldn't have cared less; I wanted the textures and the shapes and the beautiful mood. So I underexposed my image until all the highlight detail was preserved. Yes, my shadows went black. There’s no rule about that. Plunge those shadows! Use them as shapes! Make a great composition with them! The alternative is what? Blow out the highlights and lose the colour and the mood. The camera’s ability to see a lower dynamic range is a gift. Use it.
Colour is a Function of Light
Light and colour are necessarily related: no light, no colour. That’s the way of things. And as the light changes, so does the colour. Read this article I wrote called Seeing Colour, where I discuss a photograph of two black gondola boats on black water. But you wouldn’t know it because the boats are reflecting the blue sky and the water is reflecting the yellow and red building just out of frame. The whole thing is a riot of colour.
Look at the images below: black cobblestones. But at the right time of night, the light from a nearby shop reflects on those stones (best when wet) and turns them red, or the rising sun turns them yellow. I often shoot this kind of scene a little underexposed with the in-camera Velvia film simulation in my Fuji X-T2, making those colours even more vibrant and dramatic. Many people would just walk past this scene because the brain tends to filter our information that’s not important, and our brains figured out long ago that shadows didn’t matter (except what hides within them) and reflections were just an illusion. Great if you want to survive, but lousy if you want to make photographs.
Ask yourself how the light at any time of day and in any place, is colouring the scene. What is that orange tungsten light creating for you to photograph? What colour are the shadows created by that light? What about snow? Have you ever looked at the shadows in a snowy scene and noticed how incredibly blue they can be?
What I don't want to do is tell you about light; that’s not how we learn. I want to encourage you (implore you!) to take up the study of light, for that’s how you will take the next slow, lifelong, steps in your craft. Right now, wherever you are, do the exercise I described above: put your hand in front of your face (not too close!). What is the light doing? Where does it fall? What colour is it? Where are the shadows? How hard are they? Now turn your hand, move it, and watch how the light moves. Go outside, do the same thing. Put your hand down and look around you. What are the effects of light wherever you look? How would the camera see this scene? How might you expose for it? Would you expose for the highlights and let the shadows go dark, hiding things and creating mystery? Would you shoot into the light and play with the lens flare? Would you expose for the shadows and create a really luminous image with blown out highlights? Would you use the soft grey day to make some gentle portraits? Observe, play, repeat. Then, if you’re still hungry, pull a book of photographs off the shelf, pick your favourites, and study the light in every image, asking the same questions above.
Study the Masters
Saul Leiter was an early colourist, both a painter and a photographer. His work, especially the work reflected in his book Early Colour, is very graphical, focusing on shape and colour. I adore this book; it's sitting on the shelf beside me. In it, he seems to have found beauty in the most mundane of places, seeing light with particular acuity. Spend some time looking at the images here and here and note how he used the colour and shape, particularly how he often used foreground frames to define the visual space and guide your eye. I can't get enough of Leiter's colour work.
If you like studying this kind of work in your hands instead of a screen, consider budgeting for one photography book (not a how-to) every month or two.
Here are a few resources to follow up on as you have time.
Read my article Exposing for Highlights.
Read my article Seeing Colour.
This one was long, sorry about that. I told you I was going to pour my heart into this. If you're serious about your craft, this one's going to do more for you, especially at the beginning, than many of the others. Take your time with it, come back to it. I study the light, marvel in it, play with it, every day of my life.
One last thing: when you joined the Vision Collective we kept your email in a specific email list only for this one purpose. We will continue to do so. I put out a somewhat weekly newsletter, The Contact Sheet, and it's got great articles and resources, the Craft & Vision Deal of the Week, and new educational tools as they are released. It's a great resource, and we're working hard to make it better. If you're not on that list and would like to be, you can sign up here.
Choosing Stronger Moments
Not every photograph stands or falls on the power of one chosen moment over another, but many do, and one of the most important lessons I photographer can begin to learn is to wait for, anticipate, or set the stage for stronger moments. I say "begin to learn" because I think this recognition of moments is something we will spend a lifetime refining.
In my first eBook, TEN (which is now free), one of the ten suggestions I make to get better at the craft of photography is to become pickier, to choose better light, to not settle for what I would now call a “good enough for Instagram” mentality. I think it applies to moments as well.
There are millions of moments in every day. Not all of them are photographs. Here’s an excerpt from something I recently wrote in Italy:
I’ve been here over 5 weeks, making photographs almost every single day. Last night as I drifted to sleep I began to work on some math. There are 3600 seconds in an hour and therefore 86,400 seconds in a day, and 604,800 seconds in a week. I have been in Italy for just over 3 million seconds.
I am going home with roughly 70 selects; final images of which I’m quite proud. When I get home I’ll do a full edit and I’ll probably find a few more, and ditch a couple. Let’s say I come out with 50-100 images. The number doesn’t matter much. On average, with some made at 1/2000 and some at 1/5, my images were made with shutter speeds around 1/60–1/100 of a second. Which means all my images were made, cumulatively, within one second. One hundred final images made in less time than it takes to draw a breath.
Of the 3 million seconds I have been here, assume I’ve been asleep or eating for half of them. Even if I were eating and sleeping and on the train for a full two-thirds of my time, that’s one productive second out of a million. What the hell have I been doing with my time?
The answer is looking for moments, but just not any moments: moments that make great photographs. Henri Cartier-Bresson called them decisive moments, and by that, he meant the moments where the action that was happening coincided with both the geometry of the frame and the intent or vision of the photographer. It’s the moment everything falls into place, and that moment is different for all of us, depending on where we stand, which lens we use, what the orientation of our frame might be, and what we’re trying to say about the scene.
Photographically, great moments happen when the person moves into just the right place to provide balance or tension to the image, or when they move just enough that the negative space is created, or when they raise their hand to create a gesture that gives meaning or clarity to the story. It always has as much to do with the frame, the geometry, and the story of the photograph as it does with the real life moment itself. More, in fact.
There are two challenges here. The first is anticipating the moments, and all I can really tell you is you have to think it through and acknowledge the possibilities. Where do you want the subject in the frame? Which possible gestures and compositions might combine to give you something significant? Will one composition or gesture better tell the story or communicate the emotion you’re hoping for? The second is actually capturing it and this is also something I can’t really teach you. It’s about attentiveness and patience. And in some cases, such as when the action is moving quickly, there’s no shame in putting your camera into something a little faster than single-shot drive mode. And depending on the action, I often use three or more frames/second to ensure the best chance at the strongest possible composition.
Take a look at the following images. What is it about the moments captured that makes the images what they are? Would they be stronger if I had waited a little longer, or would the composition fall apart? Even if the composition were still strong, would the image have the right emotional pull? Would the story still succeed? The moments that make good photographs great are fewer than we usually believe them to be; no new camera is going to help us see those moments, and that’s the hard part.
For Further Study (below), I'm including the link for one of my favourite books, Magnum Contact Sheets. It's a bit pricey, but if you can swing it, I highly recommend it. Study it. Look at some of the most iconic photographs of our time, and the moments chosen in context with the moments not chosen. Learning to see (and that’s what this is) is about perception, and it’s about recognition. Being more conscious of the geometry of moments takes a trained eye, and there are two great ways to do that: study more images and make more images.
Study more images: take a look at the work via the links below or get your hands on Magnum Contact Sheets and ask yourself how the moment makes the photograph. That’s step one. Then ask yourself what the photographer had to do to make the image. It’s not all about the moment—that’s only part of it. It’s also about where the photographer stood, where he placed the camera, and which lens he used; all of that changes the geometry of the scene and can’t be discounted. To the photographer standing in one place with a 21mm lens, a particular moment might be “decisive” and powerfully translated into a photograph, for another with a 50mm lens standing in a different place, that moment might come seconds (or even minutes) later.
Make more images: take your camera out and make photographs on the streets, of your cat, whatever moves you. But preferably make those photographs with moving, living subjects, because the moments change faster than with, say, an oak tree. Make 6-8 images of each scene and then look at them critically. Is one moment better? Why? Has the composition changed? The look on a face, the gesture of a body? The goal here is to recognize the connection moment has to geometry, and to hone your taste for stronger moments.
Study the Masters
It should not surprise you that I want you to consider the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson this week. I adore Cartier-Bresson in part because he didn’t consider himself a photographer, just an artist who drew with a camera, and years before his death he put his cameras down and returned to drawing. It was the image he loved, not the camera. And part of that was his love of the moment and the composition. He didn’t overthink things; he thought in terms of the visual language and went about his work.
Look at the images here and consider both the timing and the geometry, or composition. Your own sense of balance, tension, and what makes a great moment within a photograph will be exactly that: your own. But it can't hurt to look at the work of another who considered the choice of moment so important.
Here are a few resources to follow up on:
Magnum Contact Sheets is one of my favourite books. It's big and packed with interesting images most of us have never seen.
This article by Eric Kim about learning from Cartier-Bresson.
If you want more Cartier-Bresson, Henri Cartier-Bresson: Here and Now is a wonderful read. Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, The Image and The World: A Retrospective comes highly recommended, though I have yet to pick it up myself. It's next on my list.
I hope you're still finding time to work on that personal project, as well as digging into these resources. Remember the magic isn't in what I write; it's in what you do with this stuff, and how keenly you integrate it into your craft.
Choose Your Constraints
This week’s lesson touches on what I consider one of the keys to the creative process. I’ve got another lesson specifically about creativity up my sleeve, but this week I want to focus on this very specific aspect, because I think when we speak about creativity it can get pretty artsy-fartsy pretty quickly, and while there’s truly nothing wrong with that and I can get as hippy-dippy as the next guy (more so, you say?), I think those conversations aren’t always immediately pragmatic and I’m doing my best to keep from having almost 8,000 people staring at their laptops and wondering if I’ll ever get to the point.
Creativity matters deeply. It’s HOW we do what we do. I know, you thought how we did photography had something to do with buttons and dials and stuff. That’s how you use a camera. How you make photographs is a creative endeavour, not a technical one. If you want to become a better photographer, at some point you’re going to have to make peace with the fact that creativity is your truest asset.
Writers and painters alike have talked about the terror of facing a blank canvas or blank pad of paper. Unless you leave your lens cap on there’s a good chance you’ll at least see something as a photographer when you put the camera to your eye. But the challenge remains: where do we begin and how do we make sense of all the incredible options available to us?
You choose your constraints. God knows we have enough limitations and frustrations as it is and sometimes those constraints choose you, I know. But even with those, most of us are all over the place with what we shoot. And most of us also have far too many technical choices; even if you have just two zoom lenses—a 24-70 and a 70-200—that’s a huge range of focal lengths to choose from. And there’s the choice of subjects which is nearly limitless, and on top of that there is every other choice that can be paralyzing when you show up to start photographing. And the secret is to give yourself fewer choices, not more.
In Week Three I talked about making Images About and not just Images Of. That’s one constraint: your theme. Once you know or decide what your image or body of work is about, you’re one step closer. Next, make some choices about how you will make the work: will you restrict yourself to colour or black and white, to a certain focal length or point of view, perhaps a certain aspect ratio or frame orientation? Pick one. And don’t get all worked up about which one to pick. Go with your gut, your curiosity, or the flip of a coin. You just need a starting place; it doesn’t have to be the right starting place. If you pick something at random and you run with it only to find out that it stinks and there are better constraints out there, you’ll find out soon enough and then you can change to constraints that seem to be working better. But most of us work better with that clear starting place. That’s the first reason to choose constraints.
The second is this: creativity is like a muscle. It needs something to push against in order to work. It needs a problem to solve or a challenge to overcome. So many of us are trying so hard to make our work better by learning new techniques and that’s fine on the surface of things, but what will make our photographs stronger is usually not upping our technical game (though sometimes it is) but upping our creative one. My friend Paul Nicklen is a National Geographic photographer and he uses what he calls his 20/60/20 rule. The first 20% of his effort is just getting the image in focus and exposed and addressing technical issues. The next 60% is creatively finding ways to better express his story or convey the mood or emotion he’s hoping for. The final 20% is a wild card. Once he’s done the work he expected to do, he tries something new, something he’s bound to fail at, but might produce surprising results. Longer shutter speeds, different strobe placements underwater, or anything else to mix it up. He learns a lot doing this. But notice that 80% of his effort is creative. That's where he puts his energies.
The kind of constraints you choose will be different from the ones another might choose from image to image and project to project. I give myself a new constraint each time I do a trip or assignment. Sometimes it’s simply to use a lens I’ve not used in a while. Sometimes it’s to focus on a particular kind of element in my images, like shadows or backlight. Sometimes it’s to learn something new. When I went to Iceland I forced myself to shoot a series with a tilt-shift lens, having never used one before. That constraint pushed me to create new work (above) that I was really excited about at the time and still love. And every time it is those constraints that either drive my work and make it more interesting, or I fail quickly and find better constraints and then it’s those that drive my work and make it more interesting. Ultimately, they make me try new things and force me to think differently, and that is how we get to stronger photographs—by thinking. It is our thoughts that guide our decisions, even when we call it our heart, or our gut. It doesn’t matter what you call it, it only matters that you give it the best chance at working in your favour.
Constraints have never failed me as a proven creative strategy for coming up with new ideas, learning new ways of working, gaining momentum on a project, or creating stronger work. In Further Study, I’ll link you to a couple articles. When I was researching this, it was amazing where I found articles on the power of constraints in creative work, including Harvard Business Review, Psychology Today, Inc., Wired Magazine, 99U, and others. This is not a secret.
Long term, I also have some constraints and those keep my work unified. I create images in a lot of places but the themes are always very similar, and the things I want my images to be about are consistent. That goes back to Week One and the discussion of vision. I know what I want my photographs to be like and I know what I want them to say, and those constraints have helped me create more consistent and authentic photographs.
Go out and shoot, but give yourself a constraint. One focal length, perhaps. Or just your iPhone and only black and white. Photograph only dogs or reflections or the colour yellow. Can't pick a good constraint? Make a photograph of something that intrigues you. Now find something in that single image to suggest your constraint. Was it the light? Go find more light like that. Was it a particular POV (point of view)? Only shoot from that angle. Just force yourself to start somewhere and see if you can create 6–12 photographs just to play with the idea of (and get comfortable with) using constraints. All of my work now incorporates constraints as early as I can possibly define them, and I think the work I've created that has been well constrained has been better for it.
Study the Masters
I won’t always link things this tightly, but the first photographer who comes to mind in the context of this discussion about constraints is Platon. Born in 1968 and known simply as Platon, Platon Antoniou is probably too young to be considered a master in the sense that I want to use the word, but he’s truly excellent at what he does and his portraiture is wonderful. Most of his work is created with wide-angle lenses that are used very close, and his subjects are lit very consistently, often in front of a white background. He has very tightly constrained himself (he has other work as well) and this gives him the freedom to concentrate on the relationship with his subject and the creative act of finding, making, and recognizing moments of revelation in his subject. His portraits are purely about personality, almost never with props or contrivances. But man are they alive! Spend some time looking at his images and consider how powerful they are despite (or, I suspect, because of), their simplicity.
Here’s a good article on Platon if you want short and sweet.
And here’s a presentation by Platon about his work, it’s a great watch if you’ve got 30 minutes.
Here are a few resources to follow up on as you have time.
Finally, you might consider reading my book, A Beautiful Anarchy, When the Life Creative Becomes the Life Created. It’s about creativity and applying the principles of creativity to how we live and work. You can get the print version here and the PDF version here.
The Creative Process: Making Sketches
Last week I addressed a very specific area of creativity because of all the things I could discuss about the broader subject of creativity, it is the practice of intentionally choosing constraints that is probably the most pragmatic. I used to encourage others to embrace their constraints; now I don’t think that goes far enough. We certainly need to do that, but when those constraints aren’t there, it is the act of choosing them and pushing against them, testing their limits, and allowing them to force us in new directions that is most powerful. I hope you’ve begun to see just how powerful that can be in your own work. However, creativity is a very broad subject, and I want to touch on a couple more ideas before moving on. The coming weeks will begin to touch on visual language, composition, storytelling, and the way we use the tools of our craft. This is a last chance for me to address the foundation.
Surely by now you’ve heard the story of photographer Jay Maisel telling a student if he wanted to make more interesting photographs he had to become a more interesting person. It’s hard advice. But we need to hear it. We get inundated in this particular little subculture of popular photography, with the message that our creativity will get better if our tools get better. It’s such bullshit. It keeps us on the hook for more and more, newer and newer. Once in a while, a new tool or a change in direction will spark new ideas; I get that. But that odd occasion is a rare moment in the creative life. The creative life is one of a work ethic. It’s showing up and working. It’s understanding how we work best creatively, and it’s a rejection of the idea of inspiration or magic. Of course we use those words a lot. I do. But if there is inspiration at all, it comes with working. If there’s magic, it’s in working the process. The reason I mention Jay Maisel is because it’s the more interesting person, the one asking interesting questions, peering around corners, following curiosity and trying new things, that has the best chance at creating the more interesting, stronger photographs. It is not the one with the newest or best gear. As often as not the new gear just gets in the way.
The top image is one of the last of a sequence of sketches that took me over 200 frames to get to. I played, moving around, looking at the light, dodging the spray, and reacting to the moments as they came. Some had something I like, others had something else. It wasn't until I'd almost packed it in that I found what I didn't know I was looking for. Only sketching could have gotten me there. Stick it out. Keep working the scene. Don't pray and spray. Be intentional, reactive, and open-minded.
First: an admonition. For the love of Ansel Adams, please don’t even start on that bullshit about you not being creative. You are. Differently creative than others, but creative. I hear this at every conference and workshop from at least one person and it’s a cop-out. A sad, heartbreaking cop-out, and I don’t believe it. I don’t think you do, either. If you really believed you weren’t creative you wouldn’t be reading these notes. You wouldn’t be working so hard to make more compelling photographs. Photography is a creative endeavour and the sooner you accept that the sooner you can begin to understand how to better work that creative process.
That was a long preamble, but it was necessary. I want to talk to you first about one of the ways in which creative people all work, and the one thing I do that takes advantage of that and gets me to better final images. Creativity is problem solving. It’s connecting dots in unexpected ways. It’s finding new ways to express even the most mundane things. It has a reputation for being a little mystical and hard to understand, but it’s not. It’s reliable because our brains work in certain ways and we can generally count on those ways. We may know what will come out of that process as new ideas often look much different than we expected, but we know the broad strokes of the process and one of the things we know is that creativity is iterative.
Almost no one begins with a great idea and then pulls it off on the first try. By “iterative”, I mean A leads to B which combined leads to C and then D, and somewhere along the way someone tosses in E, F, and G and a few more steps down the line you get to Q and begin thinking you might just have something here. By Z, you’re a long way from where you began. But without that process you would never have gotten there.
So I sketch. With my camera. I make dozens of sketch images. And like writers allow themselves really shitty first drafts, I allow them to be really bad, unburdened with a need to be anything more than a snapshot. And I look at each one and question it. Does it have mood? What are the lines doing? What is the light doing? Is the moment helping the story? What does my foreground contribute to my background or vice versa? I ask questions about visual mass and balance and framing. Shutter speed, and aperture. And with those questions I make a sketch of the answers, always bringing the camera to my eye, making an exposure, and seeing what the result is.
loved this little boat in the fog in Newfoundland, but as so often happens, it's not the first shot that is the best expression of the thing. This is a screenshot of a sketch sequence of close to 60 images. Sketching is play, exploration, and discovery. In the end, the frames I like best had a sense of scale and a feeling of lostness that the first images didn't. But I wouldn't have gotten there without starting at the beginning of the process.
Hear me on this: I know no photographer who gets it right the first time every time. Not even close. To saddle yourself with that expectation is binding in a process that should be liberating. At this stage, you need the freedom to make 20, 30, or 100 frames, each one getting you a little closer to the strongest image. Do not edit yourself, berate yourself, or give up. Eventually, once you’ve gone through this process a thousand times, it might take fewer sketches to get there, and the process will feel a little more fluid, even intuitive, but it’ll still be a process. Bad ideas are to be explored and not tossed out; it’s often bad ideas that lead to better ones or combine to make something unexpected. Questions (and that’s what your sketches are) are more important than answers. Making a lot of sketches is not magic. It’s making sketches and reacting to them, finding in them new possibilities and ideas, and letting those lead you to the best possible expression of your vision of a place, a person, or a moment.
The final image from this rock-hewn church in Ethiopia took some work. Many of my sketches are quick, poorly exposed and out of focus, just quick shots I can react to : do I like it, or don't I? Do I need to move? Wait for a better moment? What about balance and geometry?
Find something to photograph. Don’t worry about making a great photograph; make an interesting one. Then look at it. What do you like? What don’t you like? Do the lines lead somewhere meaningful? Is there mood? Can you make it simpler? Try again. Keep asking. What would happen if you used more depth of field? Less? A slower shutter speed? Camera motion? Play. Keep the ideas that seem to work, and move past the ones that don’t grab you. I want you to teach yourself to examine all the possibilities, and play with the ones that show promise. Ultimately, a creative approach to making photographs is finding a way to combine your vision + the scene in front of you + your constraints and tools (both technical and visual) in new ways to find the strongest possible combinations, and most of us have to try those combinations, see them with our own eyes, to know if they resonate with us. Go sketch.
Study The Masters
I want to introduce you to Sam Abell, another National Geographic photographer, but one whose work is, at least to me, immediately identifiable. It stands out from the tack sharp, hyper-realistic work of his peers, not because it’s neither of those two things but because it’s so characterized by mood and often a contemplative, even serene feeling. His stories happen more through an episodic series of emotional vignettes than a traditional narrative. Look at his work from Newfoundland and his short series on canoeing to get a sense of that. His colour palettes, composition, use of space, are all very unpretentious.
I’m going to push Magnum Contact Sheets on you again. If you want to understand how other photographers approach their process, trying again and again until they get it right, this book will teach you, inspire you, and liberate you. There aren't many books I think are a must-study, but this is one of them, especially on the idea of sketching out your images.
If the questions I ask myself as part of my own process interest you, I wrote many of them down in Making The Image. If you have that book, go through it again. It comes with a handy PDF Quick Reference Guide (which Vision Collective members can download for free here). Put that on your phone and consider using it when you shoot. Not all of the questions will apply, but most will.
Sam Abell’s latest book, The Life of a Photograph, was tremendously enjoyable. Along the lines of Dan Winters’ The Road to Seeing, which I also highly recommend (though this one is shorter), I find myself reading books that not only show me the work of a photographer but give me glimpses into the way they think. After all, it’s the thinking behind a photograph that sets in motion all the elements and decisions that eventually make it what it is.
Consider the Frame
When we think of our photographs, it's easy to think of the frame itself as merely the holder of the contents, where everything within that frame is so much more important than the edges. Easy as it is to think this way, it’s a mistake that prevents us from using one the most fundamental and powerful visual tools we have. The frame is much more than the bucket into which we pour the content; it’s the canvas onto which we paint our image and it's our first (and in some cases, most) important constraint.
The Frame Itself
When we speak of composition, we almost always jump to decisions about how we arrange the elements, but the question is not merely “how do we arrange the elements in relation to each other?” but “how do we arrange the elements in relation to each other and the frame?" The same composition choices we might make for a horizontal orientation do not work for a vertical. The same we might choose for a long 16:9 frame will not work for a square. They tell the reader to read the story differently. They force the eye in different directions. Different frames are experienced in different ways. They feel different. And for the photographer, they allow some choices and discourage others. The fact that too often it’s not possible to successfully re-frame an image once it has been made means this is one of the more critical choices we can make. And certainly where composition is concerned, the time to choose a frame is before you make the photograph.
I could have framed this vertically, especially with the vertical relationship of the manta, the diver, and the sunburst, but I also wanted to emphasize the horizontality of the manta: the 12-foot wingspan of the primary character in this image was the most important consideration for me.
It is too easy to assume that we choose our frame based on the subject. We even call vertical frames “portrait orientation” and horizontal frames “landscape orientation.” I get it, but this has to be the most simplistic and unhelpful way of looking at things I can imagine. What determines the orientation of the frame is not the subject but the photographer and what she wants to say, what she wants the image to feel like, and the kind of story she wants to tell. And yes, at times, the elements present (subject), combined with the choices I just mentioned, will dictate that one frame is better than another. But that should be only one consideration, and likely not the most important one.
Remember that the orientation of the frame determines how the visual story is read. If it’s vertical, we read top to bottom; if it’s horizontal, then left to right. What kind of story are you telling? If you want me to look at the face of the bride looking down at her new wedding ring, a vertical frame might emphasize that gesture better than a horizontal. If two people are talking on the street, one looking to the other, it might be that a horizontal frame is a stronger choice to reinforce the visual relationship between the two. How your image is going to be read—and making that experience as strong and unambiguous as possible—is the first consideration, not how tall or wide your subject is; there are plenty of creative ways to accommodate for that, only one of them being the choice of a tall or wide frame.
Having said that, one of the great tools of the graphic designer is the repeated element, which I’ll discuss in a future lesson. The repeated element is powerful because it creates a visual echo or reinforcement of an element. So it could be that a vertical frame helps reinforce the verticality of a stand of pine trees. But if that strand of trees is a longer line on the horizon, a horizontal frame might better echo the horizontality of that line. Whichever frame you choose, be sure to do so intentionally, knowing that it’s a choice that will work with or against your composition, and therefore will strengthen (or weaken) the experience of the reader.
Two versions of the same image, one of them square and one of them horizontal. The square gives more weight to the relationship between earth and sky while the long horizontal downplays that relationship and concentrates instead upon the long repeating pattern of the trees.
If the choice of frame orientation is about verticality or horizontality, then the choice of ratio is, in part, about how vertical or how horizontal the image is. It is also about proportion: how vertical in relation to how horizontal. Photographers don’t talk much in terms of the visual language, which is a shame because I think it reveals that we’re not really aware of it. We don’t talk about harmony, balance, or proportion, and those are important ideas when we talk about an aspect ratio. Instead, because of our history and the way images are used, we've often cropped images to fit a page, not designed the page around the photograph. Fair enough, but that casual approach to the frame has carried over to those who aren’t forced to compromise for the sake of a Time magazine cover.
This course is too short, and these lessons already long enough, that covering the idea of asset ratios in a fuller way would mean pages of text. What I want to make you aware of is the importance and potential power of this choice. There is a reason we use the ratios we do: 2:3, 5:7, 1:1, 16:9 instead of a bunch of random freestyle crops and it has to do with harmony and balance. It’s about proportion and what we seem to find pleasing. That does not mean you can’t crop your images with an unconstrained ratio, but do so with an eye towards the whole feel of the image, the whole balance, and the whole sense of the frame, not merely because pulling the top of the frame down cuts out a distracting detail.
For me, this is about the feeling of an image. You’ve chosen to photograph that tree vertically, but if the feeling you want is of towering heights, perhaps a tall 9:16 frame would be a better choice than a 4:5, which is rather squat. For other reasons, you might want more negative space—there might be another element that needs inclusion, and another ratio might be a better choice. My hope is that you’ll see it as just that; a choice with implications on the way we experience your image.
Three different aspect ratio versions of the same image, 1:1, 2:3, and 16:9, each of them leading the eye more powerfully in different ways. I prefer the 16:9 for this image because it allows plenty of negative space as the others do but also allows me a much more prominent foreground; knowing that the fence was what first drew my eye, it was that I wanted to draw your eye as well. The longer aspect ratio allows me to do that and maintain a dynamic energy from left to right, which the other frames don't create.
Digital cameras are getting very good at giving us choices so we can choose our frames in-camera. My current Fuji allows me to choose 16:9, 3:2, and 1:1. I have Nikons that allow me to choose 4:5, which I miss on the Fuji system. Find out what your options are and play with alternates. If you always shoot in the native 35mm framing, try something else. See how cinematic a 16:9 frame can feel, and experiment with the way that a 1:1 forces changes in your compositions. Next, pull up a few of your favourite images in Lightroom and play with alternate crops. Some will take well to new crops; some not at all. What I’m hoping is that you’ll begin to see new possibilities and become more aware of the frame itself—the canvas—as one of the more fundamental and powerful decisions we have. Remember the discussion about constraints? This is a good one. Try shooting for a week on 16:9, or 1:1. Get a sense for how these very different frames feel, what they do well, where they help or hinder.
Study The Masters
Putting this lesson together, no photographer came to mind as much as Michael Kenna, whose often stark but always elegant black and white landscapes have captured me ever since I went to Hokkaido. I knew of him before that first trip but never studied his work. His graceful compositions are often brave for their placement of elements and plays of balance and tension. Take a few minutes to look at these galleries on Kenna's site: Hokkaido, Kussharo Lake, and Power Stations in the UK which I find mesmerizing. His full archive index is here and worth the time to study.
Here's a rather lengthy but interesting blog article by Ming Thein on Aspect Ratio and Compositional Theory.
Printing is a whole other ball of wax and aspect ratios can be confusing. While we have a range of choices for the frame itself, the paper on which we print is often a different ratio. Here are two articles by John Cornicello that discuss the issue. I have found that printing my own work and owning a good paper cutter gives me the most options with the least headaches.