Do Something Different with your Photography

I advise photographers to stick by the rules of composition and exposure to make successful photographs. But there is another valuable lesson that I don’t always discuss with photographers, and that is to experiment with their equipment and the photography they are producing and that subject came up during a discussion with a photographer that stopped by my shop last week.  His lament was “everyone’s a photographer now days and most of what I see (I think he was talking about the city he lived in) is pretty much the same…and I feel like I am just one of that crowd.”

I suggested trying to do photography in a different way, and to disregard advice from others and begin a personal exploration of creating and experimenting with photography to make something totally new and different from what is most comfortable.  Push the envelope and, in doing that, become more aware of what you are capable of doing, as well as what the equipment you own is capable of doing.

The famous photographer Ansel Adams once said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it”.   I think that we might take the time to do just that.  Consider alternative and unique perspectives when photographing a new subject and try different camera techniques and try equipment you haven’t tried before.

That might be as simple as trying to shoot only from a tripod for a time period. If you don’t have own a tripod, borrow one, and make a commitment to use it for every photograph you take for the next month. Some times you’ll hate it, sometimes you’ll love it; but the outcome will be learning to “make pictures” in a different way.

Or perhaps, and maybe more difficult, select something that wouldn’t normally be considered a subject.  Use your camera to really photograph it and try angles that make people wonder if you have lost your mind. The opinion as to whether the photographs are successful will be yours, since the only opinion that really counts is yours when you have crawled through the dirt and photographed that flagpole from its base looking straight up through the flowers around it as a black crow flies overhead.

Try to be expressive with your photography.  When you photograph something think about getting rid of anything that complicates it.  Simplify, simplify, simplify.  Go for a minimalist effect.  I remember a photojournalist in the 1970’s telling me that the words he thought of before photographing a subject was “tighten up”.

Try a different way of photography and using light. See what happens when the color balance is absolutely wrong, or the lighting produces unusual colors and you photograph just the oddly colored items. One might carefully observe the lighting and wait.  Wait until it affects a subject in an interesting, and maybe better yet, in an incredible way.  Waiting for the light takes patience and that could mean waiting an hour, an afternoon, or all day for the light to become what a photographer wants when looking for something different.

Experimental photographs “made” from these efforts will have us thinking outside the box and when others view photos so different from what we normally produce it is they who probably won’t understand.  That’s a good thing because our objective to be different will have been achieved, and most importantly, we will have learned something new about photography.

One of the outstanding features of digital cameras is how delightfully easy and helpful they can be when experimenting.   The only real cost for to try something completely different with a digital camera is the time and effort.  Look at your images on a computer screen and decide if each worked for you or not.  I expect the result will not be boring and you will have learned more about, not only, how your camera works and responds, as well as any other equipment you tried for the first time, and you will likely have learned more about light, shadow, composition, and exposure.

You might well develop a way of photography that starts with the question, “How can I photograph my subject in such a way that makes it different?”

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Pictures Shot in the Bright Hot Sun


Bright sun and clear sky might be great for some scenic photographers, but it can cause many problems when photographing people.  My assignment this week was to photograph an event that began at 2:30 under almost clear skies, and where even in the shade the temperature hovered in the mid-30 degrees celsius. The location was on a south-facing, treeless, hill top with a sprawling vineyard in the background.

The event, other than a large group shot of all the guests, was held under five large, white tents, and my goal was to balance my flash and exposure to lighten up my subjects without glare, or shadows, and properly expose the field’s sun-drenched background.

The contrast in light from shadows to highlights on a very sunny day can be too extreme for a camera’s sensor to capture. I always look for open shade, or place the sun behind my subjects and use a flash.

I meter for the mid tones like the grass, or, in this case, large open field, and underexpose about two stops, then balance the overall image using my flash. My flash sits on a bracket and the flash is attached to my camera with a wire so I can remove the flash and hold it at different angles if I need to. I did notice people wielding point and shoot digital and a couple photographers with DSLRs trying to use their pop-up flashes, but I am sure they were disappointed with their results on that sunny day as the extremes from black to white are just too much for digital sensors.

Fortunately, photographers can load images into PhotoShop and no matter if they are JPG or RAW files can be optimized using Adobe RAW – an amazing application that gives additional control over exposure, shadow, and highlight detail. Adobe RAW can even help with those not-so-well focused images.  I use that program to polish my images and make them all that they can be which is much better than settling for photographs mass corrected at a big box lab.

After selecting the best images I correct the white balance and colour using Photoshop.  I make the photo look pretty much the way they appear through the camera and the images taken in the bright sun now have lots of detail.

Another program I regularly use (and think is amazing) is by Nik Software Inc. and is called Viveza.   Viveza allows selective control of light and colour. With that program I can maintain the colour and tonality while changing the background and blending the effect exactly.  All this isn’t much different than I used to do in my old film darkroom except now it is more precise, the process can be duplicated, and overall everything is easier.   Between the two programs I am able, without spending too much time in post-production, to provide my clients with polished and balanced images that do not show the harsh environmental realities of that day.

Sure, sunny clear days please us all and when planning an outdoor event we prefer that to rain, but for photographers the sun and harsh unflattering shadows on people’s faces isn’t the best outcome. My advice is not to approach this type of photography the same way as a scenic and to begin with test shots and constantly pay attention to the exposure and absolutely use a fill flash for the best outcome.

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Liking Black and White Photographs


My last article entitled, “Wandering City Streets with my Camera” included both colour and black and white images and elicited the following remark from reader, Timothy Schultz, who said, “I don’t usually like black and white photos, but they were used very effectively here.”

Black and white photography has always been a favorite of mine, and I am pleased that some readers agree that sometimes the use of black and white is effective.

During my years of involvement with photography I have seen changes in the kind of photography people are doing. When I first started making pictures as a child it was all about economics – B&W prints were cheaper than colour prints.  After that one-hour photo labs appeared in shopping center parking lots, department stores, and finally in malls, and colour prints became inexpensive and the mainstay for photographers.

I have always liked black and white and much of the time prefer the mood it evokes.  Since the introduction of digital image making and programs like PhotoShop and NIK software’s Silver Efex the need to carry a dedicated camera and to commit space for a custom-built lab has disappeared.  Now all that is necessary is learning how to effectively use the correct program.

Colour is reality, and black and white seems a bit “arty”, or as I wrote, “mood evoking”.  I have never produced an album of wedding photographs without including some black and white prints and when I ask the couple if they are OK with that, I always hear, “Oh, we love black and white. Yes, please”.

People comment that a black and white portrait speaks about a person’s personality.  I am not sure about that, but I do like, and sometimes prefer, black and white, depending on whether the subject is a person, an animal, or a building, and what I am trying to illustrate with the photograph.  And, I “previsualize” how those colours are going to work as shades of gray while I am composing the photograph.

I’ll mention here that famous photographer Ansel Adams introduced the idea of, and the word, previsualization. It is a term he used to describe the importance of imagining, in one’s mind’s eye, what the final print reveals about a subject.

We see everything in colour, and in the modern world of digital photographic technology that’s what is captured.  Then, we visualize and translate those images into black and white images using post-production technology.  I really do like B&W pictures and sometimes miss those singular times in my darkened room, where I would produce my B&W photos by hand in open trays of chemicals.  However, technology has changed and there are many options that now allow photographers to produce higher quality B&Ws.

I read an on-line discussion entitled, “Why Black and White Photography” by Robert Bruce Duncan. In it he wrote, “black and white has an inherent dignity”.  His opinion is thought provoking.  Perhaps we do see and interpret more in a B&W photograph. Duncan goes on to say that he thinks few colour landscape photographers have matched the black and white work of photography greats like Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Margaret Bourke-White, and Imogene Cunningham, for example. And on portraiture he says, “it’s more than arguable that black and white is at it’s best for people photography…From early portraits by Julia Margaret Cameron, and later, Steiglitz and Steichen….(and) the photographers who documented America during the depression, to a whole slew of great Hollywood glamour photographers…and all the masters that made Life magazine perhaps the best periodical of its era.”

I am intrigued with Duncan’s words, I could mention some famous colour landscape photographers, but I’ll leave them to readers to search out. I believe both colour and B&W has its place.  As I wrote, sometimes I prefer black and white depending on the person, animal, or building, and what I am trying to say with the photograph. I pick and choose what image I think will work best in black and white and that depends upon the subject, the circumstance, the light, and, of course, the colour.

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Wandering City Streets with my Camera


I enjoy wandering city streets with my camera because I think the possibilities for photographs of cityscapes are endless.  Let me begin by saying that my wife and I were in Kelowna, British Columbia,Canada, doing cleanup and some renovations to a house we own and rent out.

The day had been long and with lots of work done and we had reached the time when we wanted to just stop, rest, and find something to eat. Linda had said she had a craving for souvlaki. I don’t’ get cravings the way she does. Hers are always for some specific taste or particular food, while mine is just for food. She, of course, gets irritated with me when she asks for my help, “What would you like?” and I respond, “Hmmm….food”. So we stopped, washed up, and found a Greek restaurant called Yamas where I ordered souvlaki and she ordered lamb. Well, so much for her craving.

The day had been clear and bright, and at 7:30pm the sun was dropping and making the cityscape a mosaic of glittering glass, cold metal, coloured concrete, and deep, shadowy silhouettes. The sun on the downtown architectural features created angles, shapes, shadows, and textures.

I began this by writing “The possibilities for photographs are endless.”  Summer in the vacation city of Kelowna mean streets filled with tourists walking or bicycle riding, exotic cars, prowling Harley Davidson motorcycles, and just about any kind of architecture one wants. A photographer only has to select a subject.

So after one of those meals that makes one so satisfied that you must bump up the tip a bit to the waitress, we wandered out into that exciting scene and Linda suggested I take her back to the house so I could do what a photographic opportunist like me is most fond of, wandering.

I spent my time looking up, over, and around, jaywalking, precariously standing in the street, and oblivious to those that have just as much right to a sidewalk as I do.  I pointed my camera and made exposure after exposure, so totally preoccupied with what I was seeing and the act of photographing that, I admit, I do get caught up in what I am photographing.

On this occasion I had decided to only capture parts or specific details of the architecture, and not the whole building, as part of the city’s landscape; just small parts of buildings that engaged me. I wanted shadows on the concrete, glaring and reflecting glass, the contrast of bricks, concrete, metal, and glass, against the sky or other buildings, and patterns of everything.

Our dinner had lasted long and the return trip taking my wife home took away time so I had to move fast, because evening shadows were growing and starting to take over the valleys between the tall buildings in a dim, flat scene, without the defining contrast that separates features.

When I finally put the lens cap on my camera and headed for the car I did notice bright neon signs turning on and bright light pouring from a couple of nearby bars, but both had some intense looking characters glaring menacingly at me and my camera, so I continued walking without composing a picture. I’ll leave those shots for another day when I can shoot and rush off without being weighed down with too much Greek food, or better yet, to younger photojournalists. I’ll stick to photographing buildings.

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