Tag Archives: photography

Close to Home

Random photos in uptown Charlotte on a chilly Saturday in December

Alan Ross recently posted an article entitled “Too Close To Home – Even for Ansel Adams” in which he discusses how he (Alan) rarely makes interesting images close to his home and how Ansel Adams had the same “problem.”  Check it out.

It would be easy to read such an article and think, “Gee, I have something in common with Ansel Adams!”  Not so fast.  I agree that most of us do our best work in places other than where we live.  But why is that?

Perhaps the biggest reason we don’t shoot close to home is that we have too many distractions at home.  Whenever we’re home we have our “to-do lists” and other chores that make it hard to change gears and just go out and shoot for an hour or so.  Maybe we’re too busy planning our next adventure away from home that we forget about what there is to shoot nearby.

I think shooting close to home can potentially result in excellent images, images that only those who take the time to know a place can make, because if we really get to know a location we can go there when the conditions are perfect for whatever we choose to photograph.  But we have to work at it and be open to the possibilities because our subject matter is not as clear-cut as it would be if we were shooting somewhere “iconic.”  And the great thing is that we have an opportunity to shoot someplace where no one else has photographed.  True, it might not be Yosemite, but we can do some truly personal work in a place where you aren’t influenced by others’ photographs.

Why do we seem to make better photographs when we travel to new places?  Think about it, and I think you’ll agree that it has to do with several main things: (1) when we travel to photograph we “give ourselves permission” to put our other obligations aside and just go shoot, (2) when we visit a new location we are usually excited, and shooting things that excite us generally results in more personal photographs, and (3) when we’re unfamiliar with a place, we work harder at finding things that interest us, because we have put our distractions (and our preconceptions) aside.  There are many more, but I think those are the top three.

For many of us, we live where our jobs are.  If we lived in the Caribbean or Alaska or the Rocky Mountains one would think it would be easier to shoot close to home.  But that’s not necessarily the case.  We get so used to things we see every day that we lose sight of how wonderful our home is.  I used to work with a woman who grew up in Hawaii but always talked about how beautiful North Carolina is.  She told me that since she had lived in Hawaii so long she didn’t think it was anything special.  Wow, I can’t imagine that!

I’ve spent the last several years shooting on the greenway that runs through my neighborhood.  It’s been a fun project, documenting the change in seasons in different weather conditions and different times of the day.  But even when all I have to do is walk out my front door, it can still be a hard thing to do.  For a while I tried doing a regular shoot there for some of my local photographer friends, but turnout was generally pretty low.  Those who came out enjoyed it, and I had some regulars, but it’s just hard for people to get excited about shooting somewhere so close to home.

To be sure, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with traveling to other places to photograph, and I certainly do my share!  We love to travel, and there is nothing better than going to a new place, returning to a place we haven’t been in a long time, or even going to a familiar place in different conditions or at a different time of the year.  I’m planning to do my share of traveling in the coming year, too.  But I think if we work at it we can see our home the way we see new places.  Try it and see, and let me know how it goes!

To Tripod or Not To Tripod?

Imaginon Children’s library in uptown Charlotte on a chilly Saturday in December

Kathy & I were talking the other evening about her experiences photographing this year, and she mentioned how much she enjoys just walking around with a camera, taking photographs of things she sees and things that interest her.  She seems to have the most fun – and does her best photography – when we are just wandering around with our cameras, no tripods, no bags full of gear, just a camera and a lens.

There are obviously times were a tripod is simply necessary to get a photograph.  And when I need one I’ve got a couple to pick from.  But the biggest problem with a tripod (besides having to carry it) is that it’s another piece of gear to think about.  Just like carrying extra lenses, a tripod gives you more choices to make, another bunch of problems to solve.  Adjusting, leveling, making sure the feet don’t crush some unsuspecting lichen, etc. takes time and attention away from the task at hand.  It’s like carrying a bunch of lenses.  The more lenses I carry the better the chance that I’ve got the “wrong one” on the camera.  Of course I can solve that by walking around with multiple cameras slung Pancho Vila-style over my shoulders.  Yikes!  No thanks.

Some people handle all that just fine, but for many of us and certainly for me, having to fuss with the equipment distracts me from the flow of creativity.  That’s what I love about the simplicity of using a compact camera or an SLR with one lens.  I start out seeing based on what I have with me, I stop worrying about whether I’ve got the right lens on the camera or whether the tripod is the right height or not and I just go out and shoot.  If I need to get lower I get down.  Sometimes I lay on my back on the ground.  I’d never bother with that if I had to adjust a tripod to get that low.

Admittedly there are some concerns with shooting hand-held.  Concerned about precise composition?  It’s perfectly OK to crop a little if you need to tidy up an edge or straighten a horizon.  I can’t get straight horizons on a tripod with a built-in level in my viewfinder!  I might get a little softness from camera movement so I have to be careful with shutter speed, although with today’s cameras cranking the ISO up a stop or two (or more) isn’t a big deal.  And most of the handheld shooting I do is in daylight so that’s not too big of an issue.  And you know what?  If you use good technique and don’t try to make huge prints they’re probably sharp enough!  I find that the best cure for soft photos is often to just stop looking at them at 100%

The tripod is definitely a great compositional tool.  If you ever want to see how unsteady you are at hand-holding, switch your camera to video mode and try to hold a composition.  That may convince you to use a tripod!  But there are times when leaving it at home allows you to fully engage your creativity, to just go out and shoot.  You may be a little limited in what you can do, but I firmly believe that if your shooting style allows you to respond to the things that “call your name,” you can react to them in a way that shows through in your photographs that a razor-sharp, technically-perfect but clinically emotionless photograph just can’t match.

A Few More Random Thoughts

Random photos in uptown Charlotte on a chilly Saturday in December

– Do people really buy the stuff that is advertised on those hand-written signs at intersections? “Microfiber Sofa & Loveseat $499” “We Buy Houses” “Carpet Cleaning – 3 Rooms $79” “Computer Repair $20” I guess they must, otherwise we wouldn’t see them.

– I find it interesting – and this is from recent first-hand experience – that when you go to a car dealer’s website, are interested in a specific car that their website shows they have and is in stock, you click the button that says “Click Here for Your EPrice!” and you never actually get a price. Never! You get automated e-mails telling you to call them for a price, sometimes the message says “please call to let me know the specific car you are interested in.” Then they send you e-mails you can’t reply to, and when you e-mail to tell them you are no longer interested they don’t stop calling!

– Is it just me, or does all the peripheral gear required to turn an SLR into a movie camera make people look like a dork? Seems to me if you need an auxiliary viewfinder, a contraption to hold the camera still, a special tripod head and all that other stuff that the camera isn’t really designed to shoot video, even though it can.

– How come so many nature photographs look so unnatural?

– How come whenever someone posts a really nice photo online somewhere, someone always has to ask either “where is that?” or “what were your exposure settings?”

– Why do some drivers feel it is necessary to drive on the grass or the berm, just to get into a left-turn lane where the light is red? A few seconds of patience and you could be there anyway!

– I recently read a Q&A in a photography magazine where someone wrote in to ask, “what settings should I use to photograph in Antarctica?” The answer person was much kinder with his answer than I would have been. Not to sound arrogant, but if you are planning to spend the money that a trip to Antarctica costs, shouldn’t you know what settings to use?

– I was talking to a real estate agent about the various methods used to market real estate these days. She told me that one of the things they do for the “less tech savvy” is mail out postcards. She then told me that the postcards contain a QR code so that the person could scan it with their smart phone and it would take them directly to a website with information about the property. Scuse me, but if someone knows enough to scan a QR code with their smart phone, they probably don’t need a postcard in the mail. Just a thought.

Personal Style

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.

I’m looking forward to reading that next book.