The Photographic idea

This past week I got into a discussion with two local photographers about photography as Art. Their opinion was that photography has become mostly a point-and-shoot process that is really all about documenting one’s personal life.

I think defining Art has always been “in the eye of the beholder”.  

I remember a friend chastising me when I was too critical of a photographer’s image, by saying that all to familiar phrase, “I may not know about Art, but I do know what I like.” 

Ansel Adams, in the forward to his popular 1950’s book “The Print” said, “Photography, in the final analysis, can be reduced to a few simple principles…” and he continued, “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art…technique is justified only so far as it will simplify and clarify the statement of the photographer’s concept.”

I remember the series of books by Adams when photography was about striving for the perfect negative and a good final print.

We don’t need to worry about a perfect negative any more, because even if the image file produced in-camera isn’t satisfactory it’s easily colour balanced, cropped, and sharpened later. Contrast can be changed and increasingly, the trend for many photographers has become to not make large prints at all. 

That said, I still think that Adams’ forward in “The Print” may be as worthwhile now as it was in 1950 for a photographer’s Art. Even with the changes of how an image is managed and finally used (whether print or electronic) the thought process is still important. Adams wrote about the technique of taking the picture, the negative, and the printing procedure. He might as well have been talking about transferring image data from a camera to computer, optimizing the files, and outputting to an online portfolio.

Adams wrote, “We may draw an analogy with music: The composer entertains a musical idea. He sets it down in conventional musical notation. When he performs it, he may, although respecting the score, inject personal expressive interpretations on the basic patterns of the notes. So it is in expressive photography: The concept of the photograph precedes the operation of the camera. Exposure and development of the negative…” He continues by saying, “the print itself is somewhat of an interpretation, a performance of the photographic idea.”

I have always liked that final sentence of his “…the print (image file?) itself is somewhat of an interpretation, a performance of the photographic idea.”   Those words remind me not to be as critical of other photographers work, if as Adams put it, “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas.”

I think what my friend meant when he said, ““I may not know Art, but I do know what I like.”   Was that I should be paying attention to what a photographer might be saying with his or her image and remind myself to think about “interpretation” and the “performance of the photographic idea.”

That is why its good that I still have that somewhat out-dated book, and why I should regularly open it up. After all the prattle about the newest camera, or lens, or computer programs, I need to be brought back to what, in the end, photography is about for me personally.

I like Photographing Buildings

Red wall & Stairway1 blue door1 parking1Northern Junk co.  Captain's ride  porch couch1Brick doorway 1 the yellow door1 Waiting

Strolling along sidewalks with my camera, in cities, large or small, is exhilarating. And whether the architecture is low and flat, or skyscraping, or old bricked, or shiny metal and glass, I always find something different to photograph.  Usually, I approach urban areas with a plan and I don’t just wander about hoping to find something interesting. That’s not my way.

Sometimes I am after the cityscape and watch for shadows, highlights and interesting sky. On other occasions, my plan might be to select a particular area and visually capture the story of how structures and features interact. I might be more interested in the colours, and spend my time using the colour evidence to make a story.

In October 2012, I wrote about images I made while walking along the waterfront in Victoria, and, in February 2013, I showed photographs and discussed the small South Thompson River town of Chase, in the BC interior.  In each instance I approached the municipalities with different photographic goals. Goals that were not so much defining visuals as they were photographic thoughts about the architecture in each place.

Some years ago I spend three days wandering the side streets of Anacortes, a town along the coast of Washington. Although I enjoyed both the downtown and harbor districts of the small American town, what struck me most were those places where people lived. The inhabitants appeared to go out of their way to differentiate each dwelling and my plan came about to document the entrances of the places where people lived.

In that instance and whenever I decide to work my way through, or around, some city I always take some predetermined course of action. I remember a late afternoon in Port Townsend, WA and on that trip I spent my time photographing the unique turn of the century buildings along the narrow, main street using an infrared modified camera. I wasn’t so much documenting the well-known seaport town, as was trying to create a distinct impression of the ornate Victorian architecture.

I once read a quote by an anonymous writer that said, “The difference between the recorder photographer… and the artist photographer… is that the artist will, by experience and learning… force the camera to paint the imagination…the emotion… the concept and the intent… rather than faithfully and truthfully reproduce an unattractive and unflattering record.”

I must admit that my intent isn’t usually to document the cities I visit, as much as it is to create a personal vision of the buildings I photograph. That vision, although uniquely mine, rarely strays much from reality other than when I use my infrared camera. I haven’t entered the artistic world of HDR (high dynamic range) image making yet. HDR is the process of merging multiple exposures into one image.  I expect that it is only laziness on my part, because I am intrigued by how well HDR post-processing with software like Photomatix, lends itself to the creative architectural work. I anticipate that I will tackle that process at some time in the future when I make plans to photograph my way along another city’s streets.

I will mention that I rarely use lenses that are wide enough to exaggerate the foreground or make those dramatic vistas. My camera isn’t a cropped sensor so an 18mm lens would be, effectively, only a 28mm. That allows me to include lots of visual details and limits the distortion between near and far objects.

Summertime is quickly approaching and with that my wife and I expect to do some driving around British Columbia and possibly stray into Washington State, and those trips will always include architectural photography opportunities in the towns and cities we pass through, or stop and visit.

As always, I appreciate your comments and please let me know you were here.

Thanks, John

My website is at

Photographing Victoria’s Harbour


We had decided to escape for a few days to Victoria, British Columbia, over the Thanksgiving weekend. The ferry docked at Schwartz bay, we disembarked, and made the scenic drive into Victoria. This is a bustling, picturesque city surrounded by water that is, in this photographer’s opinion, a perfect place for a photographer to wander around looking for photographic opportunities.

We were lucky in that our hotel room was on the ninth floor with a beautiful view overlooking a panoramic harbour only a block away. It was perfect setting for a photographer. Upon reaching our room, the first thing I did was set up my tripod on the balcony, attach the camera, and start taking pictures of the view. I wanted photos that showed the warm afternoon light, and later on more photos displaying the early evening sky as the city lights began turning on, and finally as the sun vanished, I made lots of long exposures with the only illumination coming from the harbor and the city.

Our first morning had a beautiful blue sky with only a slight breeze and as my wife got together with her long time friend and left for a day of site-seeing and some shopping, I got out my camera and made my way to down to the water front on foot.

My wife and I live in the very dry interior of the Province with rolling hills, lots of lakes, and a large river, however the ocean and everything connected to that environment there is unfamiliar and exciting and I couldn’t wait to start taking pictures.

I chose to bring my 18-200mm lens. The 18-200mm is a lightweight, multifocal length lens with an aperture range of f/3.5 – f/5.6. I know that many photographers these days are favoring wider apertures like f/2.8, but I would be using smaller apertures because I wanted scenics with a sharp focus from foreground to background. Using a wide aperture would reduce that depth of field. And for those readers that would say, “what about those lowlight evening images from the balcony?” My answer is that those were the images that especially needed all the depth of field I could get and most were f/8 or more.  Besides I was using a tripod and a cable release. Anyway, there wasn’t anything in my pictures of that lowlight cityscape that would be moving and I could use as slow a shutter speed as was necessary to get an exposure that worked.

I call lenses like that 18-200mm “vacation” lenses because they are so versatile. I have never been one for carrying lots of equipment and a lens that gives me both wide and telephoto capabilities saving me from carrying a bag full of lenses. My plan was to spend as much time as possible walking along the waterfront. I meandered back and forth thinking nothing of retracing my path when there might be another subject angle I wanted to consider, and the added weight of a heavy wide aperture lens, or additional lenses, would have slowed me down. Exposures change with how the sun reflects off a subject and returning to a place previously photographed several blocks away seemed worth the effort.

I had to get used to how the reflection off the water tricked my camera’s light meter. I don’t know if all cameras are the same, but in my experience relying on the camera’s meter in many cases will result in an over exposure. So I always underexpose around large bodies of water. That’s easy. I just make a few exposures and check my histogram until I am satisfied.

I had a great time photographing boats, planes, birds, and pretty much anything else on, off, and around the water that caught my eye as I roamed Victoria’s waterfront. I found new subjects, met interesting people, and even spent time with other photographers. I really enjoyed the change of photographic scenery and highly recommend any photographer to change things up to refresh their perspective.

I appreciate your comments.

My website is at

Photography on the Ferry



My wife and I boarded the BC ferry Coastal Celebration to Victoria, BC. We parked our car, picked up our cameras, and proceeded up to the sundeck. The day was clear blue and the ferry’s sundeck was packed with people with their cameras, all searching for joyful memories of the one-and-a-half hour ocean crossing from Tsawassen to Swartz Bay.  The weather was pleasant and encouraging for those travelers who wanted to stay outdoors.  When the wind became too gusty the passengers would step behind glass partitions designed to provide protection yet allow for an unobstructed view.

I think, with maybe the rare exception, the photographs being taken were of friends or family posing against the rail. Another favourite photo was the group shot around a table, (arm extended style with camera pointing back at the shooter), and then another favourite, of course, was of other boats passing by. And finally, there were lots of shaky pictures of the luxury homes that were perched on the shores of small rocky islands.

One has to admit, after taking that picture of a spouse or friend standing in front of some scenic location, all the rest are just repetition. I took my wife, Linda’s picture holding her camera, a little tired with all the traveling, hair blowing in all directions, standing next to a white rail with blue water behind her. I’ll treasure that picture because it’s her, but she just smiled when I showed her that not so flattering image.

I had made the obligatory portrait and was about to be off when a guy and his family walked up and handed me his little digicam and asked me to take a group picture. I posed them, made one fellow remove his sunglasses and changed my angle a couple times as I took their family-on-the-ferry portrait. My wife later mentioned that the fellow had been watching and she was sure was waiting for a moment when he could ask me to take their picture.  I am sure he had just looked around for the guy with the biggest camera. I guess I won.

Although, unfamiliar with the large white, ocean going vessel vibrating under my feet, I was fascinated with all the unique doors and windows, wall mounted things like pipes, speakers, all the odd railings, long walkways and so much more. However, most interesting; it had people, lots of people from all types of places.  We heard many languages being spoken.

I wandered that windy deck photographing anything that caught my eye, and that included photographing the people. I had my 18-200mm lens on the camera, so it was easy to be inconspicuous. Those in front of my camera either thought I was, like them, interested in some feature beside or behind them in the ocean, or like a guitar-playing fellow I photographed, just didn’t care. Anyway, I wanted to photograph how they were standing, the play of light on them, the ship, and what was around them, I tried for unusual angles through stairs and made silhouettes. Almost all my images were side or back shots, after all I didn’t know them and wasn’t interested in their faces, just how they fit in with everything else on the ferry, or maybe I should be calling it a ship.

The hour-and-a-half trip gave me plenty of time to search the ferry for things to photograph, but I was enjoying myself so much that before I knew it the fun was over with the sound of the ship’s horn and an announcement to return to our cars.

I do like comments.

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