It’s Not The Camera

Aboard Freedom of the Seas

A few weeks ago I entered 4 prints in a juried photography show.  There were a total of 140-some submissions, and 2 of my 4 entries were chosen out of about 30 overall, with 1 of mine receiving an Honorable Mention.  All 4 photographs were taken with my now-ancient and so-called obsolete Canon G9.

The prints were done on canvas at an 11×14 size.  Admittedly that’s probably about as big as they will go without losing some quality, but I can live with that.  There’s no reason why they need to be bigger.  The main point – and one that brings me great satisfaction – is that the type of camera I used was immaterial.  All four of the photos I entered were made while I was on vacation.  If I had taken only an SLR I probably wouldn’t have made the photos at all, because more than likely I would not have had my camera with me.  Having a compact and easily-portable camera that I was willing to carry made the difference.  I could have made the photographs with any camera – and made them just as well – but I could only have made them if I was carrying a camera at all.  If I had taken only a bulky SLR I probably would have left it in my room.

I recently attended a photography workshop with Les Saucier, who has been one of my mentors and has provided much of my recent photographic inspiration.  In part of his presentation Les uses as an example a phrase that represents his choice of camera brand and pokes fun at those of us who favor the superior make.  It’s all in fun and we know it.  At one point during the class he mentioned that while he can easily tell the focal length of the lens used and can sometimes tell whether the lens was high-quality or not, he has never been able to look at a photograph and tell what brand of camera was used.  The images reveal a lot of things but they do not reveal the brand or type of camera.

During the critique session four of the six images I submitted were made with my G12.  No one even hinted at knowing or wondering (or caring) what camera I used.  In fact, the two that I shot with my G12 got favorable commentary from Les as well as the participants.  This only serves to emphasize my point.

I know this is a subject I probably beat to death, but it’s one I feel strongly about.  It’s the photographer that makes the photograph.  The camera he uses is obviously the most important tool, but the end result is about the photograph itself, not the equipment used to create it.

Trial and Error

Wheelbarrow in field at the Licklog Mill Store near Highlands, NC

I was just reading a post on Kirk Tuck’s blog where he took himself to task for being a Curmudgeon, stuck in his ways and not willing to try new things.  If you follow Kirk you know that nothing could be further from the truth.  He tries lots of new things, and sometimes tries some old things just to see if they are as good now as they used to be.  Usually they are.  But when the money is on the line and he’s doing a job, he is always very careful to select the right tool for the work he’s doing.  Sometimes it means he can use an 8-year old Kodak SLR and sometimes he relies on the trusty 5D Mark II.

The subject of this specific rant was that he had recently allowed himself to use Topaz to process one of his swimming images, and he thought the image was interesting and that “I really like the tones and the colors I ended up with after playing.”

I find myself feeling like a bit of a curmudgeon at times.  I like the way I do things and it’s hard for me to change.  I know that I should probably try new things, if for no other reason than to say that I tried them and didn’t like them.  Sort of like you can’t complain about the election if you didn’t vote, right?  And I suppose it’s good to learn new things, even if it’s just so I know how to talk about it when I’m teaching a Lightroom class.  But I worry so much that the “gear” will get in the way that I tend to not do that.

I think the main thing for me is that I like the tools I use because I like the results I get from using them.  It’s part of the pre-visualization process.  Yes, there is probably some merit to knowing how to use other software, but in many ways isn’t that just like buying another lens?  The more lenses I have the more time I spend thinking about whether or not I’m using the right lens and the less time I spend thinking about whether I’m pointing it in the right direction.

About Art

Old truck in downtown Black Mountain North Carolina


As I’ve traveled on my photographic journey one of the things that continues to fascinate me is the art side of the medium.  I pay attention to it not necessarily because I fancy myself as some kind of “artiste” but because I am interested in learning about the historical influences and hopefully a little about what makes “good” photography good.  I think it is helpful to see what the possibilities are and use that knowledge to form and cultivate my own vision and refine my approach to my own work.

I understand that art – and what makes Good Art – is very subjective.  And there seems to be sort of a consensus, at least to the casual observer, that art has to be weird to be good.  And the weirder the better.  Terms like “cutting edge” or “pushing the boundaries” or even “visionary” are thrown around like compliments in a singles bar.  After spending time looking at various mediums and what people do and don’t consider “Good” it becomes quite apparent that art, and one’s taste and appreciation in art, is highly personal and very subjective.

Kathy & I recently attended the opening for The Light Factory’s Annuale and annual Member’s Show.  The Annuale is a juried show, where they bring in a prominent curator or director to be the juror, and submissions come from all over the world.  This year they had something like 120 submissions and 6 were chosen for the show.  I’ve entered the Annuale for the last 3 years.  Not because I think my work has a chance to get in, or even because I think that my photography would ever even be considered Art, but because I find the exercise of choosing a theme, editing the photos down to the required 5-7 choices and writing an Artist’s Statement that describes the work and outlines my intention to be a fascinating exercise and a worthwhile educational process.  For me that’s pretty much all there is.  It would be great to have my work chosen, but there’s not much chance of that.  And that sentiment is only reinforced when I see what work is chosen.

It’s interesting to me that for the last 4 years’ shows there is always work that I look at and think, “yeah, I get that.”  I see the photographer’s intention, can somehow connect emotionally to the work and appreciate what they have done.  And there is always at least one selection, often two or more, that I look at and think, “huh?”  And this is not unique to this particular museum or this particular show.  I find myself wondering these things any time I look at a show where the work was somehow “chosen” based on someone else’s interpretation of artistic merit.  And I don’t necessarily mean to imply that I think there is anything wrong with it, I just find it fascinating.

After the opening we had dinner with some friends, several of whom had also submitted work to the Annuale and at least one who did not enter because he didn’t feel like his work stood any chance of being picked (although I disagree).  All of them had the same conclusions about the same selections.  They tended to favor the same ones I did and were shaking their heads at the same ones that make me question my own taste.

It would be easy to get discouraged by all this, and many people do.  I find it to be a fascinating part of the educational process and am actually encouraged when I feel that I have been able to come up with a series of photos that work pretty well together and write an Artist’s Statement that sounds – at least to me – cohesive and coherent.  Whether my work gets picked or not doesn’t really bother me.  It would be great to have my work chosen, but that’s not why I do what I do.  I truly feel that I would rather have people who appreciate my work find me, and not force my work on others and try to convince them to appreciate it.  That’s probably backwards and not the way a true artist would work, but that’s the way I do it.

June, So Soon?

Sunrise from Craggy Pinnacle, Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville, NC


I had a different photograph all picked out for this month’s calendar, but this afternoon my June issue of WNC Magazine arrived.  In it is a two-page spread with this photo, one of the two images chosen for the newly-revived Vistas feature.  It’s pretty special to get a big spread in a great magazine, so I decided I would rather look at this one for the month of June.  I hope you agree.

This photo was taken several years ago from Craggy Pinnacle, in Craggy Gardens on the Blue Ridge Parkway just north of Asheville.  The vertical version of this is one of my all-time favorites, and now this one is growing on me too.

My friend and mentor Les Saucier frequently asks, “when is the best time to take a horizontal photograph?”  To which the proper reply is “just after you’ve taken the vertical.”

Persistence, Perseverance & Professionalism

Brimstone Hill Fortress on St Kitts

It’s interesting how things work out.  I don’t conspicuously market my photography, preferring to rely on referrals and word of mouth from people who know and appreciate my work.

Marketing my photography – or what passes as marketing for me – takes me along three primary paths.  I sell my work as prints or stock, I teach classes and make presentations on Lightroom, digital workflow and other presentation topics, and I write on my blog.  I do all of that because I enjoy it, and if I get paid it’s a bonus.

I don’t do photography to make the mortgage payment, but I do treat it as a professional business and operate as though it was my full time job.  I’ve always wanted to feel like I did everything that a full-time photographer would do, and I do a number of things that even some of the full-time photographers I know don’t do.  The biggest compliment someone can pay me is when they say something like, “you mean this isn’t your full-time job?  Your work is great!”

I’m a big fan of Tommy Tomlinson, a columnist for the Charlotte Observer and in my opinion one of the best newspaper writers since Lewis Grizzard.  He recently wrote a blog post titled “What it means to be a pro” about singer/songwriter Edwin McCain.  You should just go read the article, but my favorite comment is when he says:

“So many people wake up every day wanting to be professional musicians, or professional writers, or professional athletes, or professional anything. Here’s the secret: Talent is part of it, but it’s not nearly all. What makes a professional, more than anything, is the will to do your best and the guts to keep showing up.”

So what does this have to do with anything?  Over the last several years I’ve sold photos to three magazines on a regular basis.  The economy took its toll on the assignment work I had been doing for one of them, and between heavy competition and budget worries the well has been pretty dry, but I’ve kept in touch, submitted my work in a prompt and professional manner and knew that eventually they would see something they liked.  And in the last month I have sold photos to all three magazines.  Two of them are running as double-page spreads in two consecutive issues.  When I prepared the invoice for one of the other magazines I realized that it had been two years since the last invoice.  I’ve submitted something to just about every request they’ve made along the way.

A couple of months ago I agreed to take pictures at a first birthday party for a friend who has triplets.  I did it for free because she’s a friend, I had shot her wedding and she has cute babies.  They liked my work so much that they paid me anyway!  And one of the other Moms asked me to shoot the first birthday party of her twins and paid my going rate.

I do one-on-one tutoring in Lightroom and digital workflow, and that has been a hard sell.  People have their own workflow and good or bad they like to stick with what they’re comfortable with.  Lately I’ve been getting calls right and left from people wanting to learn how to use Lightroom.  They are amazed at how much they can learn in a 2-hour session.  Good stuff.

This doesn’t mean that the recession is over or that I’m suddenly famous and it certainly doesn’t mean that I’m going to be able to give up my Day Job any time soon, but it is hugely gratifying to me when people appreciate what I do and am willing to pay for my work.  I have to think that a professional approach, keeping in touch, replying in a timely manner and being reliable will pay off in the long run.  Plus it’s the way I am and the way I like to work.

Whatever you decide to do, take the time to do it well, keep at it even when you think you want to give up, and eventually preparation and opportunity will cross paths and all that hard work will pay off.

Learning by Doing

Carriage House on the Cone Manor, Blue Ridge Parkway near Blowing Rock North Carolina


I recently traded e-mails with a student from one of my Lightroom classes who told me that she liked my teaching style because I showed her how to do things then gave her time to try them out while being available to give feedback or answer questions.  I appreciated that feedback because that’s always my goal.

As someone who is mostly self-taught – after a great introduction from a photo class taught by my now good friend Emilie Knight and a few other valuable mentors – I am a firm believer that while it is good to get inspiration, knowledge and information from workshops, websites, videos and the classroom, it is absolutely critical to “complete the circle” by taking the time to do the work.  Sit down at your computer and figure out how to use whatever software you choose to create the images you envisioned.  Watching me doing it and taking notes isn’t going to help you.

People like to tell me about how hard they think Lightroom is.  It’s not hard – in fact it’s remarkably simple – provided you take the time to learn how to use it.  If you’re looking for that big “Easy Button” you won’t find it.  But if you take the time to learn how to use it you won’t need the Easy Button.  For me the goal of software is to not have to think about it.  Learn what the capabilities are, just like you learn the capabilities of your camera.  Before you know it you’ll be taking photographs and visualizing the results because you will know exactly what the capabilities of the software are.

Get out and photograph.  Apply the inspiration you get from others and get to work making your own photographs.  You need to get out and take pictures – YOUR pictures.  Not your version of my pictures or someone else’s pictures.

When I do my classes or presentations I show people my photography, show people how Lightroom works, talk about what inspires me or how I see, but I don’t want to do it for them.  Enjoy my work, hopefully be inspired by some of it (hey, inspiration can inspire to do or to not do, you know!), see what the possibilities are then go do your thing.  That’s one of the problems with sharing technical data.  When I show a photo and someone asks me what lens I used, or what the shutter speed was, they’re not thinking about the photograph.  They’re distracted by the how and not paying attention to the why.  I encourage people to think about it instead of asking the question.  That’s how we learn.

If someone asks me for the technical information and I say “Canon 5D with the 70-200 2.8L IS USM at 190mm, f16 @ 1/30, ISO 100” and they write it all down what does that do?  It’s just a bunch of gobbledygook.  But if they look at my photo and think to themselves “looks like a longish lens because he got in close, shutter speed is pretty short because he froze the movement and there’s pretty good depth of field so he probably used a small aperture” guess what?  They get it!  It doesn’t matter whether you get the exact numbers but as long as you get the idea that’s close enough.  Then take that and apply it to your own situations.

Don’t get me wrong.  Going to the classroom or attending a workshop is great.  It’s fuel for the fire.  Another tool for the toolbox.  But take that fuel or that tool and go out there and make something with it.  Something that’s special.  Something that’s yours.

A Craftsman Leaves No Mark

Morning on the beach at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina


Last weekend, in addition to a great time shooting on the Blue Ridge Parkway and in the Great Smoky Mountains, Kathy & I had occasion to visit a few art galleries and the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center.  We looked at a bunch of photographs, postcards, books and calendars in the various shops we visited.  While most of the work was well done, there were several examples that I would call “over the top” to the point where it was obvious that the colors, contrast, sharpening, etc. were simply pushed too far.  I’ve never subscribed to the “Some is Good, More is Better and Too Much is Just Enough” school of thought, at least for my photography.  A subtle approach is best, and it’s very difficult to be subtle and effective.  That’s the one big danger of some of the tools we use to process our images.

I had the unexpected good fortune to meet up with my friends Les Saucier and John Schornak, and Kathy & I were able to have dinner with them in Brevard.  During the evening Les and I had a short conversation about a particular group of photos we had seen.  Among other things, these examples were heavily vignetted, to the point that it was quite obvious and overdone.  Les’ comment was that “a craftsman leaves no marks.”  That struck a chord with me but also sums up my opinion pretty well.

This is a term I had heard before, but I was interested in the origins so I Googled the words and found a reference to the Tao word wu-wei that seems to describe this concept.  This is way oversimplified, but from the Encyclopedia Brittanica comes this reference from a book titled Taoism: The Parting of the Way by Holmes Welch, “Wu-wei is an action so well in accordance with things that its author leaves no trace of himself in his work.  Perfect activity leaves no track behind it; perfect speech is like a jade worker whose tool leaves no mark.”

Not everyone agrees with this approach, which is probably a good thing for the software companies, but I don’t want the results of my work to reflect the tools I used to create it.

May Wallpaper

Cascades on Boone Fork from the Tanawha Trail, Blue Ridge Parkway near Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina

My grandmother always used to say that it was bad luck to turn the calendar page ahead of time, but then I always forget to turn it on the first of the month!

It’s hard to believe that yet another month has flown by!  I’ve got several more posts in the works but wanted to get this one out, because I know I have a few people looking for it!

This is a photograph of some cascades on Boone Fork, along the Tanawha Trail, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina.

I hope your May is an excellent one!

Random Thoughts 4/30/11

Spring colors along North Lakeshore Drive in Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Bryson City, North Carolina


– I was reading an article about new cameras, and it mentioned that newer LCD screens are viewable from a “maximum angle of 170 degrees.”  That would be quite a feat.  Yes, I realize that they were referring to 85 degrees either side of perpendicular.

– I was reading another article titled something like “Essential Gear to Make Your Landscape Photography Look Sharper, More Creative and Dramatic.”  It listed a bunch of gear, but the only things they listed that would actually do that were a tripod and a polarizing filter.  How does a bigger hard drive, a new memory card or being able to stream images wirelessly to my iPad make my pictures look better?

– I’m amused by all the ads for these sling/holster devices that show happy photographers running around with multiple cameras hanging from their shoulders and waists.  They look a little like Pancho Villa except with cameras  What are we supposed to do with all those backpacks the gear companies were selling us last year, and where do I hang my laptop and 2TB external hard drive?

– Kathy & recently spent a little time in Cades Cove, a real photography destination.  While we were driving the loop road we saw a tree and said, “hey look, there’s so-and-so’s tree.”  I’m not sure what it says when you can recognize a tree.

– A woman I work with has a photo of her kids as her computer wallpaper.  Right across the front of the image is the Sears Portrait Studio watermark.  I suggested that if she paid for the photos they would probably give her copies without the watermark.  She wasn’t amused.

– Creativity is hard work.  It’s no wonder so many photographers don’t bother.

– I love a quote that I read on a blog last week.  It said something like “If you use only one lens you’ll always have the right one with you.  If you carry more than one lens, chances are good you’ll always have the wrong one on your camera.”

– Kathy has been trying to take a few pictures to see how she likes it.  Eventually she’ll want her own gear but I’ve got plenty of stuff and am happy to share.  Two photographers can share camera bodies, lenses and even filters with no problem.  It’s kinda hard to share a tripod, though.

Outside the Comfort Zone

A couple of weekends ago I did something entirely different.  A good friend and former co-worker asked me to photograph her triplets’ first birthday party.  Yes, triplets!  Like I said, she’s a friend.  With more than a little concern and hesitation I said Yes.

It was fun!

More than anything I was surprised by how much crawling around, getting up and down and generally doing things my body doesn’t usually have to do is required to do this kind of work.  It’s tough!  But I was also interested in figuring out how to apply things I know and regularly practice to taking photographs of subjects that move.  And eat.  And get messy.

It was great!

I even had one of the other kid’s moms ask me if I would photograph a party for her twins in May.  I thought about it just in case she called me and she did call me.  I said Yes.

I think it’s a good idea to step outside one’s comfort zone once in a while.  It’s good for the creativity to apply our vision to new things, to think about interpreting different subjects in our personal way.

As with a lot of photographers I often get asked if I do things I don’t do – weddings, portraits, birthday parties, etc.  Usually I say “no” and refer people to photographers I know who specialize in those things.  I figure I don’t want to be bothered doing something I don’t do, and I justify it by telling the potential customer that they would be better served by someone who specializes in their work.  What I fail to realize is that they asked me because they want me.  They don’t want to go with someone they don’t know, even if that person might “specialize” in what they are doing.  So what usually happens is that they don’t follow through on my recommendation or they just don’t hire anyone.  People take comfort in knowing that someone they know trusted me, and that if they hire me I’ll do the job.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to do it for free, or that I’ll even do it for cheap.  I know enough about the business to know to charge a fair rate for doing this kind of work.  If I quote my price and the people decide to hire me I’ll do the work.  If they don’t hire me or if they hire someone else it won’t be personal.  If I get the work I’ll do my best and be paid fairly for it, and if I don’t get it I’ll still have plenty of my own work to do!

Photographs and stuff!