How did you learn photography? (finale)

Some of what I have learnt that helped improve my images

Developing an approach

Thus far, we have journeyed through some of my early photography, how my interest got rekindled and blossomed through lots of learning methods and activities.  In this final episode, as promised, I’ll go over some of my approaches and methods for getting the images that I do.

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The Alley

The first item I want to clarify is that everything I do to get an enticing image can be learned and practiced until it becomes second nature.  There is no denying that some people will learn quicker and develop their abilities faster, which is often referred to as talent.  However, talent alone is not enough to produce great results in any field.  There is no substitute for making bad photos and learning from your mistakes.

So what are the not-so-magical steps to my process for getting the images that I want?  No surprise, but they are pretty straightforward:

  • Find something that is interesting to photograph
  • Have an idea of how you want to portray what you have found
  • Decide what steps in execution get you that result

Like I said: it’s pretty simple, when you break it down this way.  So let’s take a look at them in a bit more detail.

Discovery

It is pretty self-evident that without finding something interesting to photograph, there is no photo.  While this may be obvious, how often do you drive or walk by some place without noticing that there is a photo there?  Of course, all of us know how to recognize lots of photogenic subjects, such as El Capitan, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Great Pyramid, or the leaning tower of Pisa and the list goes on and on.  However, most of us don’t live right by these locations or have the budget to go travel to these places on a whim; so what to do?

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Blue Pond

A significant amount of my landscape photography is done during my commute to and from work.  As I look to vary my route, so that I don’t get into the same rut day upon day, there are a number of spots along the drive that have become some of my favorites to photograph.  The key to finding those special locations is awareness of your surroundings.  Don’t be afraid to stop on your way and check things out!

Another key item in finding that interesting shot is that sometimes your best shot is behind you rather than in front; such was the case for Blue Pond, which you see to the right.  I stopped to photograph the marsh and passing train, which didn’t really impress me, so I turned around and noticed how I could get the sky to play off the pond; a much more pleasing shot!

The skill needed to find images everywhere can be developed through exercises that challenge your vision to explore scenes in new ways.  Always look for more!

Visualization

Now that you have found that really cool subject that you can’t help, but photograph, it is time to decide how you want to show it to your audience.  It is all too easy to shoot a beautiful subject in a way that detracts from its brilliance; I’m sure you have seen snapshots from friends of that amazing waterfall that is so poorly composed that it’s lost its power.

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Bath Harbor Light

So how do you go about ensuring that your shot doesn’t suffer the same fate?  The first step is to frame a picture in your mind that brings out the exact sense of beauty that you feel from what you see.  Look through your lens to see what it shows you; if it is a zoom lens, see what zooming in or out presents to you.  Change your perspective by moving around or lowering your vantage point (this can be particularly effective when looking at a reflection).

The image of Bath Harbor Light demonstrates this principle.  If you have ever been to Acadia in Maine, you may have vistied this sight and you’ll see lots of photos of this particular lighthouse.  Most of these photos do not show it from this angle, but rather from a vantage point that eliminates the trees.  The rocks were filled with photographers looking for exactly that angle (it’s a ways to the left and lower, if you ever want to find it).  As the light was not ideal on this day, I decided that framing the lighthouse between the trees provided context and more visual interest.

Again, this is a skill that can be gained through ample practice!

Execution

Naturally, all your work to this point should not be allowed to go to waste with a poorly exposed image.  Therefore, the final step is to decide how you want your camera to read the light (assuming you’re not going 100% manual), the depth of field that gives the right feel, what shutter speed might work best.

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The Lady Gazes

Even if you use a 100% automatic, such as an iPhone, which I often do, there are still ways to control exposure; good material for future posts, maybe.

In your visualization, you may have given thought to what parts of the image should be sharp, while other parts should blur somewhat.  Think about what F-stop will give you what you’re looking to portray.

If your camera is even in partially automatic mode, you will want to make sure that your exposure reading is not fooled by bright white or very dark colors.  Learn to adapt for that by using pre-exposure compensation (DSLRs will have this, but not all point-and-shoots do).

When this all comes together, you get to express your vision and amaze your friends (no guarantee of that!).

Where to go next

Development and continuous improvement are a never-ending mantra for anything, about which you are truly passionate; once the bug bites you, you’ll spend countless hours improving.

There are two things that you should never stop doing in your photography:

  • Study, not just books, but learn from every photo that you like by determining what you like about it and why it works.
  • Stay inspired, both by what others do and what you do!

This is the last in this series, but I think there may be some follow-on posts from this.  Of course, I love to find out what you like to read more about.

P.S. yes, I left out post-processing…  I will do some posts on how I like to tackle that.

How did you learn photography? (part 3)

Photographing agility competitions allowed me to hone my camera skills

Building more skills

Photographing agility competitions allowed me to hone my camera skills, exposure and scene understanding and quick decision making to get just about any shot in an instant.  Add to that an understanding of just about any breed of dog and how they jump, so that I could just about guarantee that I’d catch them in their best look, and I was in demand for dog sport photography.

The one missing element was the personal satisfaction that I was stretching myself creatively to a level that I felt I could.  I had joined a camera club and enjoyed the interaction with other photographers, and this did help me determine to some degree what I wanted to do as a next step.

My true desire was to be able to produce images of the quality that one would expect from a professional photographer; the kind of image that you see in a magazine or in advertising or in a gallery.

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Macaroni and Cheese

So I made a list of the skills that I needed:

  • Lighting a subject under various circumstances
  • A well-developed artistic eye
  • Ability to pose subjects for a pleasing result
  • Knowledge of tools to produce the final image

A pretty basic list, which can take thousands of hours to master.  Time to get serious about learning!

Learning approaches

In addition to the books that I already gathered, I started taking some workshops and seminars and participating in group shoots.  Each of these approaches had their merits and helped me learn in different ways.

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Solitude

On-line courses were great in terms of fitting into a hectic work week, and getting a lot of well-prepared technical or artistic information in written form for later reference; each course required me to submit assignment shots by a certain time, which were then critiqued by the instructor(s).  I took classes ranging from flash skills, conceptual photography (Solitude) and food photography (Macaroni and Cheese).  Food is definitely one area of commercial photography that I enjoy; after all, who doesn’t like food?

Workshops were fantastic opportunities to learn skills within a day or two and often get lots of hands-on work.  I worked with some great instructors, who are truly inspiring.  Rick Friedman’s workshops on Location Lighting taught me how to use Speedlights to light just about any situation creatively and for the effect that you want.  Bobbi Lane’s Portrait Photography workshops added a lot of portrait lighting for effect skill to my bag of tricks, as well as posing models.

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The Lady has Charm

Working with models was also crucial to my development as a photographer; even though most of my artistic work is landscape and abstract, working with models taught me to recognize the importance of managing lines in any shot.

What have I learnt?

Clearly, I have developed as a photographer over the past 10-12 years, and I have received recognition for a number of my images.  During that time, I have learned a lot of technical skills and unlocked some of my artistic ability, but more than anything I have achieved a level of confidence that allows me to take on just about any situation and come up with a solution for getting the shot that I want.

In the next part, I’ll go over some of the strategies that I use to get these images and what I see as the continuing journey of acquiring knowledge, skill and enjoyment from photography.

Hope to see you for that one!

How did you learn photography? (part 2)

After a number of years without much photographic activity, the bug slowly started coming back during the mid to late 1990s

Early Renaissance

After a number of years without much photographic activity, the bug slowly started coming back during the mid to late 1990s.  The advent of the digital camera era got my curiosity aroused, but the high price of the cameras kept me off the playing field.  That is until Kodak came out with a reasonably priced 1MP camera, the DC20, which retailed for $299.  Yes, times have changed!

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Halloween 2000

The DC20 was capable of taking either 8 shots at full resolution or 16 at half resolution and had a fixed focal length lens.  To get the images off the camera required attaching it to a serial port and waiting for the bits to flow!  It was fun for experimenting and some very basic shots, but produced horrible artifacts.

The Olympus C960 (IIRC) came next in 2000 and it allowed me to start doing some actual photography with a digital camera, such as the Halloween shot of my daughter Teegan (left) and her friend.

During this time, the volume of my shooting went up dramatically, as the results were a bit more controllable and pleasing to the eye.  My education in photography was getting back on track, as I started paying closer attention to composition and light conditions; a lot of this was still trial and error, but if I look back at my images over these couple of years, there is a progression.

In 2003, I needed a camera upgrade and found the Minolta Dimage 7i, which was a big step up at 5 MP and much more control.  The improvement in image quality and the added control with the optical zoom enabled me to start exercising more control over the final look of the image.  This accelerated my learning and provided the stepping stone to the next level.

Going to the dogs

In 2004, my wife, Kris, started competing in agility with on of our Cardigan Welsh Corgis, Darwin.  Going with Kris to these competitions, I brought my trusty Minolta with me to get some shots of Darwin in action.  Of course, I would get in a couple of practice shots of other dogs, so that I had an idea what I could expect and where to get the best possible shot of Darwin.  And, because during these competitions most of your time is spent waiting for the next time Darwin gets to run the course, I got bored and started photographing other dogs’ runs.

Pretty soon, people started asking me, if I would consider selling the pictures I took of their dogs to them.  I wasn’t ready for that yet, particularly since my camera had a slight problem: shutter lag.  If you’re familiar with the Minolta Dimage 7i, you might know that there is about 1/3 second between pressing the shutter and image capture; not bad for photographing a posed group, but tricky when you try to get running dogs at just the right time.

You get the idea: upgrade time to my first Digital SLR, the Canon 10D.  This immediately solved the shutter lag problem and gave me full control over all the functions of the camera.  Now the learning had to go into high gear, as my plan was to pay for this camera with photo sales from agility competitions.  I convinced a couple of clubs to let me photograph their agility trials and found something out very quickly: people love photos of their dogs in action.

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Buford, Superdog

Looking back at the images from the first couple of trials, I have to admit that they were pretty rough.  The first step was to learn what the limits of my camera and lens were in terms of the exposure triangle.  Stopping motion of a dog in mid-flight requires a reasonably fast shutter speed.  And with this camera, I couldn’t push the ISO too high, as color cast would appear due to the graininess.

By early 2005, I had a decent handle on my camera and was able to produce shots, such as this Basset Hound doing a superdog flight over the final jump (there is a story behind this shot…).  The key learning piece was all about learning to master the equipment, so that to a casual observer it would simply look like all these shots required was a simple press of the shutter.  I learned to estimate exposure values, adjust for the difference in reflected light off different colors, compensate exposure depending on the color of the dog, and anticipate what the dog would do.

During this time, I did start buying photography books to accelerate my learning.  One of the books that I found invaluable is Brian Peterson’s Understanding Exposure, which covers much more than just exposure, as he spends quite a bit of time on composition as well.

What’s Next?

In terms of learning, photographing action was an excellent school, as the goal is to not miss any great shot and be prepared for anything.  I learned to shoot with both eyes open, as my non-dominant left eye can pick up on what is outside the right eye’s field of view through the lens.  I studied a tremendous amount about exposure, and learned how to look at a location to quickly analyze where the good vantage points are.

What was lacking from the dog-sport and other action photography was a sense of artistic expression.  The next step was to expand my range of photography and skills, so that I could take on new challenges.

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Rose Particle

In the next part, we’ll go over the range of skills and artistic expansion exercises that have led me to where I am today.  Hope you’re enjoying this little journey along my photographic path.

How did you learn photography? (part 1)

As a photographer, there are a number of questions that come up with some frequency.

Common Questions

As a photographer, there are a number of questions that come up with some frequency.  Some of these questions are rather mundane, such as ‘Your camera must be really good.  What model is it?’, while others are interesting, but not always answered in the short amount of time that is available in today’s busy lifestyle.

From my perspective, the interesting questions tend to center around the following areas:

  • Artistic choices made in shooting, editing, printing, etc.
  • Learning the technique and art of photography

Certainly, there are other topics that are fun to discuss, but these areas are the main ones.

As I tend to focus on artistic choice questions as they relate to specific images, I will defer that topic set to those posts, which focus on a single image or a set of them.

In this post, I’ll start the exploration of the approach that I have taken, both consciously and unconsciously.

First Steps

As is the case for many photographers, my first interest in photography was kindled by a family member; in my case, it was my stepfather who was an occasional photographer on vacations.  But the real mystery that intrigued me came from a set of photo developing and printing supplies that I found in our apartment’s storage locker; the unusual apparatus made me wonder what that was all about.

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Kodak Pocket Instamatic

I got my first camera around age 16 or 17.  It was a Kodak Pocket Instamatic, such as the one in this image.  It took C110 film and the flash cube that old photographers can tell you about.

Despite the diminutive size, it took reasonable photos, including a bunch that I took in the British Museum, much to the amusement of the guards, who wouldn’t believe that such a little camera could work; now, if I only still had the prints from that era!  It traveled everywhere with me and even came to college with me.

These first steps were very much about exploration, and, in all honesty, I don’t think that I learned much on a conscious level, as I didn’t give much thought to composition or the exposure triangle.  Unconsciously, this did start the process of learning to see what I liked in a photo, which is a start.

The Next Level

Leaving the Netherlands to go to college, I arrived in the United States and travelled to Granville, Ohio, the site of Denison University.  As an incoming freshman, I was assigned an academic advisor in the Physics department (I knew what my major was going to be before I arrived); as luck would have it, Dr. Grant, my advisor, was an avid photographer and an Olympus OM-1 shooter.

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Plan C – Rotterdam

I distinctly remember examining the prints of his work that hung in his office, which were mostly of flowers; there was something that struck me about the quality of the composition of several of them, as I noticed that I was drawn to those images again and again.

After saving up for a while, I did acquire my first SLR, an Olympus OM-1, which I still have, and switch to shooting slides; the color saturation and the ability to see the positive image were what pulled me away from print film.  Additionally, slides are much more portable than prints.

During this period of my photography, I was very interested in examining structure, form, color, light and shadow; thus, a lot of my photos (technically, slides) from that period show architecture, such as the image here of a housing development in Rotterdam, which are usually referred to as ‘Cube Houses’.

When I look back to the images from this period, there is a slow maturation of my vision, but it was not at a level where I could explain why I shot an image in a particular manner.  As I didn’t pick up an instructional guide or take any course, that wasn’t surprising.  My learning methodology was purely trial, error and slow improvement.

The Dark Ages

After college, my photography activities diminished slowly until they were usually practiced only during vacations.  There was no real attempt on my part to improve my skills or acquire a better understanding of what I was doing to create either good or mediocre images.

Of course, we know from history that after the dark ages there will be a Renaissance period; this is where the learning and skills expansion gets serious.  More about that in the  next post in this series.

Learning Style