The Photographic Composer’s Score and Performance

Spring storm

A storm o the prairie


Wind power


October Infrared

October walk in Infrared

Trans Canada trucking

Trans Canada Highway – Infrared

River bluffs

Infrared of Thompson River


I taught photography in the 1980s and 90s for the University College of the Cariboo (now Thompson River University) when the only way to make a photograph was using film.

In my lectures I informed students that as well as learning about their cameras, they must become proficient in negative development and printmaking. I would emphasize that those serious about the medium of photography would come to realize that what they did with the camera and the negative it produced was only the beginning, and that it was their final print that would set them apart as a photographer. And I would quote famous photographer Ansel Adams, “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print…its performance…”

Film has now been discarded by most serious photographers, although I expect artists will use film creatively for years to come, nevertheless, even with advancing photographic digital technology Adams’ words from the past are still significant.

The digital camera isn’t making a picture in the sense of light permanently imprinting itself with different intensities on a chemically sensitized surface like film. Instead there are sensors and in-camera computers processing light from thousands of photosites that are transferred to computers as data files for conversion into countless pictorial possibilities. I have become, more than ever, of the opinion that like the negative, the RAW image file, is now the “score” to Ansel Adams – the photographic print.

I know there are those that haven’t bothered to move their camera selector off JPG (Joint Photographic Group). However, choosing JPG files means those images are pre-processed in-camera and the photographer loses control. I prefer shooting RAW (not an acronym like JPG, RAW is unprocessed data) and choosing RAW is like having the negative Mr. Adams discussed, affording us total control over those data files or, more importantly, allowing a personal vision of how the final photograph will look.

A young photographer that came into my shop last week got me thinking about this when, with some kind of misplaced pride, he announced he would never use PhotoShop on any of his pictures because he was only into true reality. Although I didn’t comment, I thought about the manufacturer’s presets that were applied in-camera to his image files, the sensor’s dynamic range of only about five stops from black to white and the very limited number of colour spaces his tiny JPG files gave him.

Some years ago I attended a print-making lecture during which one of the speakers said in the past he would get up early and drive to some scenic location hoping to capture an impressive sunrise, after which he would package up his film and send it to the lab and leave all decisions to an unknown technician’s personal vision. However, now he shoots RAW and transfers his image files to his computer and the decision has become his to control how his photograph will be processed for viewing.

As in the days when I processed and altered negatives in special chemicals and manipulated prints by adding and subtracting light, I now use computer programs to process my RAW images in my quest to perfect my vision of each. And I expect the same thing is true now as it was with my students all those years ago, that what they do with the camera is only the beginning, and to repeat Ansel Adams, “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print (is) its performance…”

I look forward to all comments. Thanks, John

My website is at

An Enjoyable Group Photography Process

Demetra 1a  Monica 7a

When I write my blog each week,  my goal is to educate, to be entertaining, and to have a new topic each week. My topics are usually the result of something I have been involved in (like this week’s post), or my thoughts on discussions I have had with other photographers. Sometimes, my wife refers to my discussions as rants about whatever issue has hit my “hot” button the previous week. It could be about joining other photographers to do scenics or wildlife photography, however, this week I am going to discuss a great time I had on the previous weekend.

Last Sunday I got together with friends Demetra, Monica, Dave, and Nancy in a photographic modeling session that was different than what I had been used to.  Demetra and Monica worked in front of the camera as models, while Dave, Nancy, and I were behind the cameras.

Monica 10a Demetra 3a

I usually write about photographers, but this time I wanted to include the models who were just as much a part of a fun and interesting photography process as the photographers. I don’t know what it would be like to put on a play that included input from actors, directors, producers, etc., but on this day five friends collaborated in a photo studio to see what we all could come up with and I likened it to a theatrical experience.

Normally I come prepared with ideas that I have creatively worked through before I start directing my subject. I rarely show the subject the images on my camera’s LCD; and, usually they must be content with my approval of what we shot as we move to the next pose. However, we were game for a new experience, and the thought of working together as a group to produce photographs seemed like a good time.

Dave and I began by searching for some sample pictures with different poses and lighting that we thought would be fun to emulate and presented them to the group before starting our day at the studio. Then we all joined forces and laid the pictures out so every one, models and photographers alike, could see them, as we worked out camera angles, lighting and posing.

Monica and Demetra took turns posing as Dave and I adjusted studio lights. Nancy kept making test exposures that we would all look at, and then we would compare with the sample pictures to see if the effect was what we were seeking.  We weren’t trying to copy the original sample, inasmuch as we were using the poses and the lighting as guides. Then once the poses and lighting were set each photographer would choose a way to personally interpret the original in a way that seemed best.

Demetra and Monica are both new to this, but were willing to work, I expect, as hard as any professional, and being involved in the decision of how they would appear in a final image appealed to them.

Nancy is familiar with posing subjects and the lighting process, but her subjects are usually students, or beauty pageant portraits, so working with models and other photographers was unique and entertaining. Dave is the newcomer to photographing models, however, after years of scenic and personal work he had decided to try something new. He converted a vacant building on his rural property to a full functioning studio filled with all types of lighting, light manipulators, and several choices of backdrops. The studio includes a full functioning kitchen, which we made full use of during this session.

We had all previously participated in the “shoot-what-ya-can” whirlwind Stobist meets, so this group style of working was familiar. As stated earlier, photographers and models interpreted the pose in their own way and then chose respectively slightly different perspective camera angles and physical stances.  I am sure the photographers will finish their images slightly differently in PhotoShop.

I have not talked to, or seen, Dave or Nancy’s pictures yet, but in the next week they’ll drop by my shop with their final image files and I will make CDs for Monica and Demetra.  I like to hang out with other photographers, and enjoy watching them work, but I prefer being the prime photographer when I do portrait work; however, I must admit I enjoyed this group process and hope we can get together again sometime in the future.

I appreciate any comments. Thanks, John

My website is at

A Modernist’s way to a view of photography

About the time of the of the First World War the presumption of art and photography exhibitions was shattered by innovations of modern painters like Picasso and Matisse. The fundamentally realistic medium of photography did not acknowledge that photographers could produce abstract or distortions to the extent that painters could and did. A growing number of artist-photographers like Alfred Stiegletz and Edward Steichen worked at bringing photography in line with modern painting by creating abstract images and processes.   They could be said to have “rediscovered” the “sharp focus realism” deemed unartistic by the then popular “Pictorialism” movement in photography. The pioneer of this “Modernist” movement in North America was Paul Strand.

The current age of digital photography seems to have vitalized photography more than any one could have guessed even ten years ago.  Attend any event and there will be lots of cameras ranging from little point and shoots to impressive DSLR’s (digital single lens reflex) documenting everything from every angle. The internet is packed with images, with all kinds of sites available for people to stack their documents of everyday life. 

In a moment of boredom I decided to do a search for a friend who lives in the US wondering if I would find his construction company. I not only found his company advertisement, but several pages of family Christmas photos he and his wife took of either daughter or son in-laws.  I browsed the site and will have to let him that I saw his photos.  My thoughts were that this is a reasonable document of people having fun; nothing creative, just a real nice family documentary.

Photographic documentation is more prolific than it has ever been, but I began to wonder about another creative part of photography; the abstract and the unusual.  There are lots of instances of PhotoShop manipulation one can find without looking very hard, yet I wonder at the style of abstract photography practiced by the greats like Stiegletz, Steichen, and Strand.  In my opinion, they were very much involved in looking at everyday subjects from different angles or perspectives. They photographed the usual in unique ways and photographed the unusual in unusual ways. They searched out things that many would ignore because they were ugly or boring, and chose diverse photographic views and visually discussed them in interesting and unconventional ways.

I am fortunate in that I get to see peoples’ photos all the time, landscapes, some portraits of people and animals, and a few close-up flower shots. Usually they are very nice and some are downright beautiful, but I think it is unusual and rare for someone to show me an abstract created by using their camera to photograph something using a unique view.

Abstract art and abstract photography may not be to everyone’s liking and I know when we show our photographs to other people we want them to comment favourably about our pictures. But when a photographer takes a chance and tries to visualize and photograph something differently, one cannot worry about whether or not one will receive praise or criticism.  Look for the unusual, the ugly, the boring, and the unique. Then contemplate about photographing it in a way personal to you. 

And if you have the interest, take some time and find out about those pioneer photographers Stiegletz, Steichen, and Strand.  Their photography is very interesting.