Critiquing Photography at the Kamloops Photo Arts Club

At the club critique

This past week I was invited to be the guest critic at the Kamloops Photo Arts Club.

Although I like discussing photographs, I was at first hesitant with that request. Organized photography clubs in Canada are accustomed to using specific competition rules of The Canadian Association for Photographic Art. Those rules are, of course, specific and must be very stringent.

Unlike that credible and important organization, my critiques of photographs tend to be filled with feedback, I am not selecting the best of the crowd, and I am more interested with what works than what doesn’t. However, the request came from photographer and club member, Linda Davidson, who wrote in the clubs newsletter about having me as a photography instructor in university, “The thing that Linda remembers from her classes with John were his critiques. He had the ability to see things that you may not see in your own work, look at images from a different perspective, not the usual point of view. He was always helpful and inspiring.” So with kind words like that I had no choice.

I remember a quote from the book “Impact – Photography For Advertising” by William Reedy, that puts into words how I view those photographers that are making good photography when he wrote, “To stop the eye, to set the mood, to make the sale.”  I believe that successful photographs must be interesting and thought provoking.

There is a general perception that “critique” means “to find fault with.” When I discuss a photograph I am not seeking to find fault. To me, the word critique means to respond to something, either positively or negatively, or both. The success of an image is how is works for the viewer.

Personally I prefer to use the word “Feedback”. Feedback is information-specific and based on opinion and observation. I have found that the best way to turn someone off is to find fault with their photograph. When I give feedback on a photograph I prefer to discuss what I like, or would like.

When a photographer seeks to make themselves better at their craft they, of course, need input from others about technical control like Exposure, Depth-of-Field and Composition. All those are important in creating a technically correct image. However, things like the mood the photographer set, and the story within the image, are what makes the viewer pay attention, and may not be so technically significant, but those are important all the same. Yet many critics fail to respond to those aspects.

Regarding the critique I provided for the Kamloops Photo Arts Club; I walked into a large meeting room with lots of people sitting around tables in conversation (catching up on each other’s photography I’m sure). The hall was set up with screen and digital projector, and after the club’s president quickly covered business and some announcements about future events I was introduced, handed a remote, the room darkened and I began to scroll through member’s images.

As I began I got a flashback of the years I spent teaching photography. I remember the slow growth as learners struggled with not only the concepts of photography and getting used to their cameras, but the long hours in the busy, darkened and sometimes smelly developing and printing labs. And I mentioned to those in attendance how much more I liked the shorter learning curve of digital image making and the amazing creativity one has with modern photographic post-production.

As I expected, the photography I was to discuss was a top-notch selection of quality images that crossed into all interests of photography. I felt like I should just sit back and clap as I scrolled through the selections and thank those present for the invitation. What a nice way to spend an evening.

I did discuss each image as it was presented on the large screen, and suggested a tighter crop on several, gave my perspective on what I liked about each, and asked questions about several. I think it would have been hard indeed to give negative feed on most of the photography I was fortunate enough to view.

I like to look at pictures. After all the dialogue about photographic equipment and where and what to take on that next photo excursion, what is really left is the final product of everything, the image. Whether in print form, on the computer monitor or, like that evening with the Photo Arts Club, on a large screen, everything comes down to that photograph “stopping the eye, setting the mood, and making the sale.”

I welcome readers comments. Thanks, John

My website is at


Another roadside photographer, again.

Thompson Valley  abandoned in the rain  Wet goat 1  wet goats 2  Forgotten in the rain  Rusting in the rain  Roadside in spring  Forgotten car  cows waiting in the rain  A wet road to Kamloops

Sometimes I just like to go for a drive. Rain or shine, it is always nice to just go out and look around.

We had been lazing around all day. I had put up one of those portable, collapsible canopies on the front porch hoping the day would be nice enough for us to sit outside for lunch, but the rain and cooling wind moved in. So I thought, what the heck, let’s get in the car and drive up the dirt road towards the forest ringed Hyas Lake and if the rain lets up a bit there might be a photo or two waiting to be made.

We packed our cameras in the car and set off. The day had a heavy overcast, but no low hanging clouds and the rain was, hmm…intermittent. Ya, that’s a good word for when its nice and dry till one gets about fifty feet from the car, then the rain comes down. And I forgot my hat. But I didn’t forget to bring a small kitchen towel and I kept wiping the camera down to stop water from pooling I places that might leak into the camera’s electronics.

Overcast days always make things looks much more colourful than bright sunny days. Not the sky, of course, but the trees, shrubs and grass do have a deeper color and I always add just a bit of contrast in Photoshop to bring out the damp colourful tones.

The dirt road was surprisingly dry till we started up the turn-off to Hyas Lake. Then it quickly became a snow covered, muddy rutted mess and we turned around.

There are some old abandoned buildings along that road that are fun to photograph, although for years I have expected to see them gone. Old buildings have a habit of disappearing. Sometimes because of vandals, sometimes the landowners take ‘em down and sometime they just get tired of many years of standing.

I remember when I first moved to the Kamloops area. I spent months photographing crumbling wood and log buildings. The next year I engaged a local printer to make calendars for me that I easily sold that December. Within two or three years every one of the old abandoned buildings in that calendar was gone.

I am of the belief that the most successful pictures come about when one has a plan, but a slow drive is enjoyable whether one points a camera at something or not. I could say the plan was to look at the long valley, find out if those old building survived the winter, see how far we go before the road was impassable, and if the time was right make a picture or two.

As it was I photographed a view of the snow capped Martin Mountain above my home, some goats playing on a mound of wet hay, a couple of rusting vehicles, some soaked cows in a field and another valley view. Not the most exciting day of photography I have ever had, but good enough for a lazy, rainy day I supposed.

Roadside photography is opportunistic and enjoyable, we talk, stop and look at things, make a few pictures. As we drove along the wet dirt road I thought of the many photographers I have known or read about that just pointed that camera and anything for the pure fun of it.

And I think many readers will agree with famous French photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue when he said, “It’s marvelous, marvelous! Nothing will ever be as much fun. I’m going to photograph everything, everything?”

As always, I look forward to any comments. Thanks, John

My website is at




Having Fun Lighting Flowers With Off Camera Flash

Spring Crocus    Crokus5

The snow has finally, and at last, left the north side of our house. It’s barely been gone about two weeks, however, that means two weeks of new growth in my wife’s garden.

I had been making notes in preparation for a workshop on using flash outdoors that I will be leading the first two Sundays in May, when my wife mentioned the crocuses were coming up everywhere, and I thought I would take a look to see if there were any left after a weekend visit from our two granddaughters who like to pick flowers, and I thought it might be nice to walk around her garden.

As it turned out the girls hadn’t got them all, and, anyway, there were many more coming up thru the ground every day. Discovering there were lots remaining I decided I should select a couple plants to photograph before the bloom was over.

Keeping in mind that I have been thinking about the upcoming outdoor lighting class I thought why not photograph the flowers just as I would do a portrait of a person.

I got out my small 2’x2’ backdrop and placed it behind some of the flowers. That small backdrop, especially constructed for flowers and other small items, is made of black velvet material attached to sharpened dowels that easily poke into the ground.

I mounted two Nikon wireless flashes on light stands, and put a 40-inch umbrella on one that I placed shoulder height to my right, and a 30-inch on the other positioned low to the ground and to the left.

Needing to shoot low, I used my favorite garden tripod, the uniquely flexible Benbo. The Benbo tripod allows each leg to be independently positioned, and instead of a vertical center column configuration most tripods have, the Benbo has a column that fits off center and when the legs, that go in almost any direction, are splayed out flat, the camera can be positioned just off the ground.

I mounted my 200mm macro lens on my camera. That focal length let me situate the camera several feet away from my subject crocuses, and I wouldn’t have to put an end to the new growth coming up everywhere in my wife’s garden while still letting me have a close focus.

The exposure was made exactly the same way I would have made it as if photographing a person in an outdoor studio; slightly underexpose the ambient light, reposition the flashes for the best light direction, and continue to make tests until I got the lighting that would flatter the subject.

Lighting a subject with off-camera flash is fun, and putting up a backdrop ensures that it is even more so. It doesn’t matter who, or what, the subject is. There isn’t really a choice when I have a chance to use a flash because I use a flash always. For me it is all about adding light. It was also really nice to spend some time outdoors in the garden and see it coming to life in the spring.

I always appreciate your comments. Thanks, John

My website is at



Waiting for the Best Light.

Early spring stream

I am sure there are lots of photographers that have discovered a special location, or scenic spot, that looks good, but when the photograph just isn’t working out and the day just isn’t making things look good, photographers return again and again, hoping for the light to be just right. That bridge on the way to work or the gnarled tree outside of town bent from the wind, that never looks the way we want it. That was always the problem with a location that my wife and I regularly drive past along Highway 97 south of our home. We always, winter, summer, spring, or fall, slow down at a bridge crossing a drainage stream that flows out and onto wide lush hayfields. The stream turns a corner as it flows past bushy native shrubs and out of a pine forest.

The image I mention is a grass and foliage lined stream that for the past six years is usually  a shady, dark, flat, and poorly illuminated possibility. The elusive landscape is perfect with a fence in the foreground that creates three-dimensionality. Depth is easily achieved as a viewer’s eye easily moves from the objects in the fore, middle and background.

I always want a center of interest and the reflective meandering stream becomes that. The composition follows the rule of thirds without any effort. Walk off the road, stand in the deep grass and put a shoulder to the bridge-post to steady the shot, and the rest just comes natural. All that is required is interesting light (that has not been cooperating) to bring everything together to create interest.

At last, this week on a clear spring morning about 9:30am, the light was working. There are times when that open space along the road actually has had an all-illuminating bright light , but that defuses detail, or sometimes it’s cloudy and overcast with everything to be lost in shadow. However, to my great pleasure, this time the light was cool, and without glare, and the shadows weren’t dark and deep. I couldn’t have asked for a better morning to stop and make an exposure or two.

As I wrote earlier, we always slow down, and cast a glance up the stream (the constant traffic willing) as we cross the bridge in hopes that the light is working. I have even parked on a sunny day, got out and walked across the road, only to have some large cloud move in.

This location has been frustrating, but I just add it to the many other landscapes that I refuse to waste my time with unless the conditions are what I want. I recall the concrete bridge on the Thompson River that I watched every morning and evening for years as I drove to work. Everything has changed now, but once there was a young tree and a grass edged road leading to that bridge. I wanted to stand in the middle of the small road and make a low-angled photograph of that grey bridge. When the light was perfect I didn’t have my camera, when I had my camera there was no light. I struggled for five or six years with that picture. Film ruled photography in those days and I was determined that when I made the picture it would be with my medium format Hasselblad camera.

When the day finally came about 7am one foggy morning the low-angled light thinned at the bridge entrance and gave the young tree a golden glow and I was, for once, ready.   I originally called that image “six years” because that’s how long it took me to take the picture. However, when I sold several copies to an organization that gave them as gifts to visiting NASA scientists from the United States, they renamed it “Pathway to the Future”.

Well here I am again at another six-year point and thanks to my wife demanding that I stop the car and pull over, I finally have the image I have been after for all those years.

Photography can be a patient thing and I like having the time to think about my subject. Six years might be a long time for some, but I have always liked the process, and there are a few more landscape scenes out there waiting for the light and me to come together in agreement in the next few years.

As always, I remind readers that I really enjoy your comments. Thanks, John

My website is at