I recently had reason to go back through my files for a project I am working on to free up some storage space on my hard drives. A (very) few may find that subject interesting, so I’ll try to include that in a future post, once the idea is more thoroughly developed. In the meantime, I excavated some long-forgotten photos in my Lightroom catalog, dating back to my very first digitally-originated photos from my Canon G5, which I acquired in late 2004.
The G5 was the camera that convinced me to make the move from film to digital. Even though it was a measly 5 megapixel point & shoot, the fact that I could get some pretty darned nice photos from it without having to scan film was the clincher. I was shooting medium format film at the time, and while I loved the images and the overall aesthetic of MF, being able to skip the scanning step was incredibly freeing. Of course we now spend that time in Lightroom or Photoshop, but we didn’t realize that at the time!
I’ll try to post photos from subsequent years as I go, but for now this is a blast from my (photo) past. Nothing extraordinary, but a whole lot of fun!
I was talking recently with a friend about some upcoming concerts here in Charlotte and what our interest was in attending them. Kathy and I love to see and hear live music, but find the cost of the tickets – especially for decent seats – and the crowds to be huge turn offs, so with rare exception we usually pass.
One of the recent announcements is for a jazz series, with several artists that I would like to see. Also just announced is a concert by Billy Joel. That would also be a great show, but based on prior events by big-name performers, chances are good that the cost of seats will be in excess of $100, but I’m just guessing. This runs counter to most people I know (shocker!) but I would be more likely to spend $100 (or $200 for both of us) on a nice dinner and/or a bottle of wine than on a concert, regardless of the performer. And I don’t part with that kind of money easily, so you get the gist.
At some point during the conversation it occurred to me that, for the most part, popular performers are those whose music has words. More often than not my preference is for music that doesn’t have words. And then I wondered how that translates to other parts of my life. For example, I tend to take photographs of scenes without people, but a large percentage of all the photographs taken on a given day – at least those not of food or cats – are photographs of people. I tend to seek peace and quiet, while a lot of people seem to like noise and drama. Different strokes, as they say.
This is not to suggest that music without words means that it has negative space. In most cases that is far from the truth. But I find that the introduction of words to music can be like people in a photograph. More often than not I prefer to leave them out.
The whole idea of negative space comes about when I think about my photographs. A lot of people are afraid of negative space, just like they are afraid of silence. But my favorite photographs are often those that have large areas of negative space. Not negative space in terms of “nothing,” but negative space in terms of sky or water or a solid color. Negative space, like silence, tends to make some people uncomfortable. I find it soothing and feel that it often adds balance. Not always, but often and under the right circumstances.
So what about those concerts? It’s too soon to tell but my guess is that we’ll opt for a few of the jazz concerts and skip the others. But who knows? We might decide that it is worth the money to see a big name like Billy Joel.
One of our challenges as photographers is to try and expand our horizons a bit in order to grow our skills and refine our vision. Often that involves getting outside of our “Comfort Zone.” Hopefully is doesn’t take us so far as our “Panic Zone” but that is always a possibility. Coincidentally one of the topics of our workshop this past weekend dealt with just that – getting outside our comfort zone.
This was already on the schedule before the workshop and ensuing discussion, but the manager of our favorite restaurant told me that he needed new photos for his website, Facebook page and Open Table and wondered if I was interested in giving it a go. After a big “gulp!” I told him I’d love to do it, we just needed to set up a date.
As it happened, the weather forecast for this past Sunday was perfect, Tim (the manager) was available and the time change the night before made sunrise a much more hospitable hour than it would have been just the previous day. So off I went at 0-Dark-Thirty to shoot landscape photos in a restaurant. No problem, right? Actually it was no problem at all. Tim had gotten there early and had everything set up, and just like with a landscape shoot we just had to wait for the right light. Once it got good, I rattled off a series of shots and it was “in the can” as they say in show biz.
It was a great creative exercise for me, and stretched my boundaries just a bit. Not all of the shots are as great as I (and the client) think these are, but they will be a huge improvement over what they had been using. I don’t think there’s any danger of me becoming an architectural photographer any time soon, but it has gotten me thinking about looking for a tilt-shift lens!
I attended one of Les Saucier’s “Refining your Photographic Vision” workshops this past weekend. I think it was the third or fourth one I’ve attended. I seem to always get something out of Les’ workshop that makes it worth the time and cost. This time was no exception. The thing that I find most fascinating though is that a lot of the things I learn don’t always come from the instructor or even the other participants. Sometimes the best “nuggets” are things that I learn about myself.
Part of the day’s activities involves a critique of images we have selected and brought in to share. Les goes through everyone’s images and comments on what he sees, how they might be made better and he usually has some good suggestions on things to work on and look for the next time. One of the participants showed an image that, while it was not taken with an iPhone, it was processed to look like it was done with one of the popular apps. Les’ comment was that – and I’m paraphrasing – the effect should not be the subject, that the software effects used in processing our images should be used to obtain or achieve our vision for the photograph. The photograph should not be “about” the effect. I found this interesting, because I feel that too often an image is shared to show off a technique, rather than to show someone what the photographer saw or how the photographer felt. I wrote about this several years ago in a post entitled “Don’t Make It About the Technique” where someone had suggested something similar to me about my use of camera movement to show motion in an image. The same concepts hold true here.
During the introductions, one of the participants mentioned that they were using all the latest Nik and Topaz software. Les asked how that person knew when to use what software, since the software is a tool to achieve our vision, not a vision in and of itself.
Several people in the class mentioned tools or software or equipment that they had purchased but “hadn’t had time” to use, hadn’t learned how it works or hadn’t even taken it out of the box. The problem I have with that is that too many people buy stuff without really understanding whether they need it. They just think that if they have something then they can take pictures just like the person who sold it to them. That may be true, and it may be absolutely OK if that’s what you want, but the best tool in the world won’t help a bit if it doesn’t help you achieve your intended result. And it does nothing for you whatsoever if it never comes out of the box. We spend way more time searching for recipes and magic buttons than we do actually figuring out what we want to say. Unless, of course, “look at all my stuff” is our message.
At another point in the day there was a discussion about tripods. Les gave us his “Good, Better, Best” talk and showed us his choices for Better and Best tripods. He told us that he couldn’t recommend the Best tripod because it costs too much. But the Best one is the one he uses, and also happens to be the one I use. I realize that there is a point at which we all have to determine what our needs are, and that helps us decide what price represents an appropriate amount to spend for a given tool. But when I ran those numbers for my own purchase several months ago, I decided that Best was what I needed and wanted, and while the difference was fairly significant in dollars it was relatively small in terms of my overall investment in equipment. Now that the money is gone, I never ever question my decision to buy the Best tripod. It is exactly the tool I need and has made a noticeable improvement in the sharpness of my images (notice that I didn’t say that it has made a noticeable difference in the quality of my photographs!). Again, we all have to make a choice, but for something as important as a tripod, I’m not sure the Better is good enough when Best costs only a little more.
The best nugget for me was during the critique of one of my photos when Les suggested cloning out a few distracting elements. I agreed with him and had actually thought about doing that when I originally processed the image. I thought about his comments later and remembered that the reason I hadn’t cloned them out originally was because I couldn’t get the result I wanted in Lightroom. Lightroom’s healing brush doesn’t work well on larger areas and to do it right I was going to need to use Photoshop. My desire to do everything in Lightroom (a nice way of saying ‘my hard headedness’) makes me avoid Photoshop obsessively except for the few things that I just can’t do in Lightroom. But as I thought about it I realized that it was foolish of me to allow my choice of tools to influence my artistic decisions. It’s no different from someone else using a tool or software indiscriminately to determine their vision. If I need to use Photoshop to get the results I want, then I just need to use Photoshop. So as soon as I have time I’m going to go back and re-work that photo in Photoshop to get the result I should have gotten to start with.
Overall it was a great session. I learned some things that I think will be valuable. Les’ biggest lesson is that we need to get our cameras out and go practice. So Sunday morning I did just that. This had already been planned before the workshop, but I stepped out of my comfort zone, got up well before sunrise and went out and shot some commercial photographs for a restaurant in Charlotte. But that is a story for another day.
The nature photography group that I belong to is an affiliate member of the Photographic Society of America, or PSA. We have recently begun participating in a number of their competitions, some of them for projected images but most of them for printed images. Because I consider the well-made print to be the intended final result of my photography, I began to submit some of my work to be considered for entry in these competitions. We’ve got a lot of members and each club is limited in the number of images they can submit in each category, plus each photographer is limited in the number of their images that can be in any one submission. It’s all very complicated to me and I have a hard time figuring it out so I generally don’t bother trying. I just send my stuff in and if it gets picked it does, and if it doesn’t it doesn’t. No big deal either way.
I did have one of my photos win an Honorable Mention in one of the projected image competitions a couple of years ago, and that was nice. I’ve been working hard at getting better with my printing and am very proud of some of the work I have submitted, so I was hoping that one or more of my prints would do well.
I received an e-mail this morning with images of the winners from the most recent competition. Mine was not included in the list of winners or those receiving honorable mention. I won’t go into a lot of detail regarding how I feel about the winners, since they obviously appealed to the people who were doing the judging. But I’ve come to the conclusion that, at least for the purposes of these competitions, the kind of work I’m submitting isn’t what the judges are looking for. I’m just not using enough software.
This is not intended to be sour grapes or anything, and to conclude that would be missing my point. But I’d be interested in knowing if there is some place or some way to get meaningful and constructive feedback on printed work that is more representative of traditional photography, rather than heavily manipulated and/or highly processed images. Maybe I’m just entering the wrong category in these competitions, but I can’t imagine that I’m the only one experiencing this. Does anyone actively participate in a print review group? Is anyone interested in starting one? It’s something I’ve considered for a while, but there just aren’t that many people printing their work these days. And of those who do, it doesn’t seem like there are many people whose goals are similar to mine. I’d be interested in knowing the thoughts of anyone reading, and might even propose that a few of us give it a try and see how it goes. Send me an e-mail or reply in the comments.
A number of years ago while living in eastern Ohio, I earned my private pilot’s license and enjoyed spending my weekends in search of the “Hundred Dollar Hamburger,” which was what we called a trip to a somewhat distant airport in a rented airplane for lunch. I now spend most of my weekends on the ground, and my equipment is, at least in theory, a bit less expensive.
One winter Saturday, a good friend and I started off on a longer trip to a much more distant airport in central Pennsylvania, hoping to hone our navigational skills on the 3-hour flight and to visit a little restaurant that we had heard good things about. After an hour or so of flying, we started getting into some winter weather. It was nothing heavy, but neither of us was instrument rated and it was just enough moisture to have us concerned about icing. My friend, who was flying the plane at the time, told me half-jokingly, “I think we ought to make a 360 and get out of here.” He was of course referring to making a 180, but I knew exactly what he meant and quickly agreed. We headed back to our home airport under sunshine and blue skies. We never did get to that airport, because soon after that I moved to North Carolina and I haven’t flown a small plane since.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I have been seriously contemplating a move to a compact camera system to replace my “aging” Canon 5D and associated lenses. The decision process has been far more difficult than the one I faced over western Pennsylvania those many years ago, and the answer is much less obvious. By comparison there are many more possibilities and many more acceptable outcomes than flying a single-engine airplane into a snowstorm. My primary motivation for making the change is that I would like to have a smaller and lighter camera, reasoning that I would be a lot happier taking a nice light backpack when I travel, as opposed to my overweight, carryon-illegal Think Tank bag that I can barely lift into the back of my car and that an airline would never let me carry aboard a plane. The second motivation is that I am running way behind in technology, and I reason that something newer will give me more up-to-date dynamic range and image quality. I really am due for an upgrade of some kind. The challenge is figuring out what to do.
In the last week or so I started making serious inquiries about what kind of jackpot I might expect by selling some or all of my gear or trading it in with a dealer. I have never bought or sold on eBay or Craigslist, and have no interest in making my debut by selling potentially valuable gear in a reputedly shark-infested market. I know a lot of people do it with no problems, but I’ve heard just enough horror stories to convince me that if I decide to “dip my toe” I’ll do it with something far more harmless, like some old NASCAR die-cast that I’ve been holding on to for too long.
The answers I have gotten back have been nothing short of depressing. Knowing how well my gear still performs, and knowing what I have invested in this gear over the last 8 years, the amortization has been pretty high, to the point where I am now convinced – again, for today, at least – to stay with what I’ve got for a while longer, perhaps looking to pick up a newer used body to get me closer to the current technology. And Canon’s got some Big News scheduled for this coming Friday, so who knows? Would I like a 5D Mark III? Perhaps. We’ll have to see.
Part of the reason for the angst is that Kathy & I have a big trip planned for May. Just like pilots have to be careful of suffering from “Get-There-itis,” I seem to be suffering from a related ailment called “New-Gear-itis.” We’re taking a 10-night cruise to Alaska from San Francisco, finished off with 4 days in California exploring Sonoma and the Russian River wine regions, perhaps with a visit to Napa. We’re more Sonoma people, we’re told, so we’ll probably stay on the western side for the most part. But I’d like to be able to do it with less gear, which is why I was feeling pressured – all internal, of course – to buy something new. But now I’m thinking that maybe I just need to look at my existing equipment and to just be a little more selective about what I take. There’s more than one way to take less stuff, right?
I’ve done a lot of thinking on this, and figure that anything I do is going to be a compromise. I’ve been looking at a Fuji X-Pro 1, and while it certainly has the size benefit over the Canon, the longest lens offered is a 60mm macro. There are more lenses in the pipeline but the 70-200 zoom is more than a year away. The cost of the body and 3 lenses would require that I sell virtually all of my existing gear. That’s more risk than I’m willing to take for a brand-new and unproven camera.
The new Olympus OM-D looks very promising and I think it’s going to be a great little camera. It’s more affordable than the Fuji, certainly has the size benefit I’m looking for and has a number of lenses available, so I could have all of the focal length I’m looking for. But again, it’s a brand-new camera and I’m not inclined to drop that kind of money for something that is unproven.
So where does that leave me? If I decide I just need to have something newer, I could quickly and easily pick up a 60D, a 7D or even a 5D Mark II. There are bound to be a lot of Mark II owners getting itchy over the Mark III. Maybe I’ll find a good deal on a newer used camera, then later on I can jump on the Mark III bandwagon once it’s been out and I’m sure it’s worth the money.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and I’m sure these new cameras are going to be great. But I think that – once again – I’m going to just sit back and see what happens. The last time I went to Alaska I took great photos with my 20D, so I’m sure that whatever camera I go with this time will be just fine. And once I get to California I’m planning to spend most of my time drinking wine, so even if there is a difference I might not care!
I’m finishing up a long-overdue read of Alain Briot’s book “Mastering Landscape Photography.” It’s a very good book but one I never got around to buying until recently, when he made his 3 books available as e-books. Click here for information on buying your own. Needless to say, I am really liking e-books.
One of the sections of the book I found most interesting was the section titled “How to Establish a Personal Photographic Style.” I find that subject interesting because it is a subject I have thought about and struggled with for quite some time. I struggle not so much about whether or not I have a personal style, but rather about whether a personal style can be “developed” or whether it just “is.” Briot’s second book in the series, and the one I will read next, is titled “Mastering Composition, Creativity and Personal Style.” I can only assume he goes into more detail in that book and I am looking forward to reading it.
The thing that I find most fascinating about the discussion of personal style is that it almost always seems to take the approach that style is something you can influence consciously, as suggested by the various terms: words like develop, master, enhance, define, improve and discover are often used. But so far I haven’t been convinced that that’s the case. I agree that someone’s personal style can be influenced by things like looking at other people’s work, learning about the expressive and artistic approaches to creativity or by expressing emotional content in our work. For me though, personal style is what results from the way I see, the way I feel and the stories I want to tell.
A lot of photographers create very identifiable photographs. It surprises me how often I look at a photograph on a website or in a magazine and know whose it is. The work that has the most impact (to me) is the work where the composition, lighting, and emotion define the “look” of a photograph. Michael Kenna, John Sexton, Galen Rowell, Annie Leibovitz have very identifiable personal styles. Closer to home, I can often identify a Kevin Adams image in a heartbeat. The same is true with Bill Lea, Don McGowan or Les Saucier. That is partly because I am familiar with their work but also because they each have a style that I recognize. This is not a rare occurrence either. I have a number of other friends – far less famous but still excellent photographers – whose work I can easily identify.
Can personal style be a result of software or processing? I suppose so, but while others will certainly disagree I’m not entirely convinced that software alone can make a style. The underlying photograph must be compelling on its own, and the software is used as a tool to realize the photographer’s overall vision. That opinion stems from my belief that software will never make an otherwise ordinary image compelling. I’d almost be more inclined to say that software can dilute a style if not used well, although I suppose photographs that are “overdone” can still be identifiable, just not necessarily in a good way.
Can you really change or influence your personal style? That is an excellent question and the core of my exploration. If you photograph what you love or something you have an interest in, you are attracted to subjects that somehow appeal to you personally. You respond to the subject in your own way and the photographs you take reflect your reaction to whatever it was that drew you to make the photograph. Since our creativity is influenced by numerous factors, the way we photograph will naturally reflect that influence. Our reaction and how we respond to a subject is based on our true feelings and reflects everything we know and believe. And while I’m not an expert on this and am probably not explaining it adequately, it seems to me that if you try to “force the issue” by trying to take a photograph in a way that is somehow foreign or unfamiliar to you, the chances are very good that the results will reflect this and somehow appear, shall we say, insincere. The image will fail by being not genuine.
I was told a number of years ago that my own photographs were recognizable, that they had a “style” that identified them as mine. I believe that and know that to be true. But I also feel that my photography has changed since then. I don’t think I take the same photographs that I took 8 or 10 years ago. But I didn’t set out to “change” my personal style. My approach to photography has changed, my vision has evolved as a result of many influences and my photographs – I think – are different.
I have a print by Les Saucier titled “Fern Herd.” Les told me that “Fern Herd” represents a turning point in his photography, because when he made that photograph was when he recognized the importance of relationships in his photography. I’m not sure that I could point to a specific photograph of mine that represents such a turning point, but if I look at a typical “Tom Dills” photo from several years ago and compare it to a “Tom Dills” photo of today, I feel like there is a noticeable difference. Whether they are both identifiable as “mine” remains to be seen and is probably not something that I am best qualified to answer. A lot of my earlier photographs were dramatic landscapes with sunbeams and clouds and great color – “Magic Moments” if you will. Today the work that most appeals to me tends to be work that is quiet and contemplative. I still get my share of sunbeams, but I spend a lot more time looking at intimate scenes, working more with composition, relying on more intimate scenes with lines, shapes and patterns to define my work instead of wide-angle grand scenic landscapes with dramatic clouds and god-beams.
I know that my personality has changed over the last 10 or so years. I suppose that just means that I have matured, but in general I find myself more relaxed. I like to take things slow and easy. I seek peace and quiet and time to think. Is that reflected in my photography? I sometimes wonder if non-photographic influences have been more of a factor than the photographic ones. Do the dramatic scenes represent the noise, the confusion, the voices that accompany the beginning photographer, while the intimate quiet scenes reflect the confidence that comes with mastery of the medium? Or do the differences reflect my own mental state of mind over that timeframe? I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that but the question is fascinating.
Is there a conclusion to all this? I don’t think there can be. Everyone’s personal style is just that – personal. And I believe it is constantly evolving. I don’t think – at least not at this point in time – that it’s something you can think about while you are out making photographs. In fact I think if you tried it would be such a distraction that you would only get confused and frustrated. I know there are as many opinions on this as there are photographers, but I think personal style is a characteristic or result of the feelings we have combined with everything that influences us, rather than something that obviously or consciously influences our work while we are doing it. It’s a fascinating topic and one that I think is worth continued and further research.