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Wednesday, 16 January 2013


I recently developped a slide film I had shot 2 years ago. Turns out that one of my preferred shots it has is one take rapidly to capture a nice looking light. Ends up more or less nicely framed and has very rich colors. I guess the instinct kicks in sometimes

C'mon Ctein - surely you're too old for a mid life crisis? There seems (almost) a sort of resonance with Kenneth Tanaka's "Why do you photograph?" post.

[That was me, not Ctein. --Mike]

Here's an exercise idea: Slap that 15mm Olympus body cap lens to your OM-D for a month. Fixed aperture (f/8), fixed focal length, hyperfocal distance, etc. Just like the old days. No decisions except where to stand and when to press the shutter. Yeah, there's a little light falloff and slightly blurry corners, but it's surprisingly good. And liberating.

Mike, the reason everyone assumes you don't take pictures is because you rarely post any personal photos. The few you've posted in the last few months have been a tiny shower in the middle of a drought. Personally, I'd like to see more of your personal work--post one or two photos simply because you like them, not because they illustrate some point you want to write about.

Plus, they'll give pixel peepers an opportunity to cluck disapprovingly and say, "Should've used a tripod for that one."

For many years I saved the 1st shots from rolls of slide film - you know, the ones marked 1 on the mount which I exposed by continually advancing the film and pushing the shutter to get to the beginning of a roll. Totally no awareness of what the camera was aimed at, just advance-click, advance-click, looking down at the film counter until it reached 1.

Recently, going through old slides for a new project I'm working on, I came across several slide boxes marked "#Ones" and found a lot of very interesting, quirky images.

So go for it, Mike! It's about changing perspective - not lens perspective but your own perspective (think about the double meanings of "point of view"). How you look at the world, how you look at yourself: how often do we get a chance to examine that?

I've done similar in the past. "Just shoot it." Just to to try to break myself out of my box. I usually put a macro lens on and just jam the camera close to stuff and in odd places just to see what I get. I get a lot of losers is what I get. But does kind of keep me from getting wound too tight about it all. I have gotten a couple of interesting images, though.

I read recently an article of a mexican critic mentioning the photographer as "the user of a software". The "software" would be the whole accepted practices, all the accumulated skills you mention, the things everyone agree to be desirable in a photo, the ways a photo "should" look.

Now, I'm kind of "classic" in my tastes. I see much of contemporary art as variations of the emperor's new clothes, but sometimes I wonder too, if the naturalistic path in photography is now, in the XXI century, just a "bag of usual tricks". In my heart I wish not, in my mind, I don't know.

as G.K. Chesterson once said, "Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly."

In other words, if it's worth doing, do it, no matter how well you think you're doing it.

About the exercises: yes, please. Count me in!
As for those shooting sessions leaving all knowledge aside, I've been doing something quite similar for the last few weeks. Sometimes I take the camera with me and photograph places I pass by in my everyday life: the streets I walk when I go to work, the beautiful river side I stroll when the weather is fair, etc. I usually don't think of those places as resources of great photographic scenes: after all I see them every day; by rights I should be tired of them. I try to make simple, unpretentious pictures, with nothing but the camera body and only one lens, as opposed to the kind of meaningful, intentional pictures I normally seek for.
These are fascinating experiences. The pictures I take in those occasions don't come out as meaningless as I initially expected; in fact they seem to make a surprising impact on those who see them. As you say, it's quite liberating, but I always manage to learn something out of those experiences. At the very least they make look at things in a different way and discover their photographic potential.
(As an aside, those experiences even make me wonder about Lomography, though not too seriously. I am fully aware that 'Lomography' is a forbidden word for any photographer worth his/her salt, but somehow the curious people known as ‘lomographers’ seem to take great pleasure out of it and the pictures they make are as unpretentious as they get.)

This sounds like a good idea, kind of fun, and it seems how creativity is pushed sometimes. Of course the equivalent on a piano might not sound so great, but luckily nobody has to hear you play with your photography.

Perhaps after your experiment you can teach a workshop on "letting go of what you know."

I've tried several times over the last few years to do just what you describe both in the photographing stage and in processing(computer). I like next to nothing of what comes out of it, particulary when I "over-process". But strangely enough when I post those attempts to my Flickr stream they recieve a lot more attention than images I'm proud of. So its back to- Do you photograph for yourself or for others?

This is akin to what I struggle with all the time. I think, maybe like you, for me it's the left brain, right brain battle. It's easier for me to follow the certain patterns, tried and true, that have worked for me in the past. In doing so, I'm afraid I may be missing out on the creative surprises that "could" happen if I loosen up some. I like your experiment. Thanks for writing about it.

I'm particularly interested in what comes out of your "Afternoon Excercises" idea. I think this is the fundamental thing we photographers do... that is seeing and seeing more deeply. All the rest, the equipment, the technique is only there to help us articulate the expression of our vision. Sounds like your excercises will be helpful to me. I look forward to them should you go ahead and put them up here.

You call yourself an amateur photographer but you are really a trained and seasoned professional. Your training and experience will always inform your work.

Being a software developer I am obliged to follow a regime of continuous training. Unfortunately I can't stay current on even a fraction of the technologies the are in the development world.

Fortunately the activity of training spills over into many aspects of my life. That includes photography. As a techie who is well past the average developer sell by date I say keep your mind agile. Learn something new today.

[That was me, not Ctein. --Mike]

What!!!! I screwed up? I always thought Ctein was your alter ego... :-)


Re the exercises--Yes!!!

Pat Trent

What you describe is a very healthy exercise, Mike. Procedural dogma and formulaic approaches are fine if you run a high school photo service or shoot ID portraits. Otherwise they ultimately confine rather than facilitate.

Let go of the roles you once played, the guidance you've gave kids long years ago, and what you believe yourself to be today. Those of us lucky enough to reach the 50+ milestone owe ourselves strong measures of reinvention in areas most important to us. Avocational photographers are not burdened by the expectations of others. You don't have to show anybody anything you're doing, nor account for your exploration.

Make 2013 the year you establish a new relationship with your photography.

"...finding ways to provoke students to learn things." Best definition of teaching I've heard in many years.

Exercises: yes, I do that whenever it is possible! In my opinion it's one of the keys to make good photography. And trying to work in a way which is not our usual can bring us some ideas to be incorporate in our usual work.
PS: It's funny, I wrote a couple of days ago about exercising in my small blog...

You've given a whole whole new meaning to 3 out of 4!


I've done this. It's called shooting with your iPhone.

Here's a fun project: sweep panorama street photography.

Phones are great for street photos because no one cares if you are staring at your phone like you are taking a picture. Panoramas are a neat and different perspective. Seems like a natural mix.

I've also been known to shoot mostly on Auto ISO in P mode. Crazy!

That's what Holgas* are for!

Sometimes ya need a different tool for a different product.

*Or iPhones, or SX-70's, or pinholes, or...

Not dumb at all Mike, or even unusual.

In the course of dabbling in various crafts over the years (writing, musicianship, drawing, photography, for examples), this is one of two types of exercise that I've encountered often, as ways to break out of ruts or blocks (or "shutting up the editor", "tossing the book", "regaining the beginner's mind", etc., though these exercises are also used to shake beginners out of their preconceptions and over-caution).

I'd characterize one type as "the pursuit of bad" and the other as "losing control". When pursued honestly, they are both scary and fun, and surprising and rewarding. Of course they produce lots of egregiously bad stuff, but the point is: who cares?

And that's the one "rule" about exercises (which you seem well aware of), especially these: they require complete freedom and trust to be effective; the knowledge that no one is going to judge, or if necessary even see, the results can be important. How important is an individual constitution thing, and depends on the exercise, but for these particular types of exercise, often the people who'd benefit most are the ones who most need this sense of--let's call it "safety". There can be no consequences, in other words.

What you describe is obviously in the "pursuit of bad" category--deliberately making "bad" pictures, doing all the "wrong" things. Photographers can pursue "loss of control" in any number of ways--blind shooting (no LCD, no viewfinder, no chimping), shooting all-auto, "toy" cameras and lenses, Hipstamatic, combinations of the above, etc.

The immediate goal is to shake off the limitations of our prejudices, approaches, habits, etc. so that we can move forward. The ultimate goal (at least in my opinion) is to learn to always approach the craft this way--to truly own our hard-earned knowledge, skills and instincts by cultivating the freedom to trust or dismiss them, as needed, with equal ease.


Why don't you post a small portfolio of images from the last year or two and let us see *how you've been seeing the world* first. I for one would be very interested to see it!


I’ve been studying karate for about a year. My cover story for starting at the age of 41 was that I wanted to keep my daughter motivated and share the activity with her, but I’ve since found that it satisfies my obsessive need for attention to detail. In that way, it’s much like photography, but with more blood and a much higher chance of injury.

Among the things that we spend a lot of time learning in our school are various forms: fixed sets of strikes and movements that are supposed to teach us the basics of balance and motion. Although I’ve only been at this for a year, it’s easy to see the effects of training when watching novices progress at the basic forms. Initially clumsy and even a bit silly looking, with attention and practice they become exercises in grace and fluidity. The difference between a white belt and a brown belt doing the most basic form is dramatic, as the brown belt has spent so much time perfecting the tiniest of motions that the white belt won’t even notice. All of the miniscule details add up to a performance that’s just plain impressive.

The criticism of forms comes from that: they are just performances. In a “real-world” scenario, the idea of a fixed set of strikes being useful is laughable. They’re dance routines, not combat rules. Even though each form has a complementary explanation of what the imaginary opponents are doing and how they are reacting, and we do spend time analysing what the causes and effects of each motion could be, it’s all theory that falls apart when applied.

My teacher spent some time a few weeks ago discussing the nature of forms, and what he said really resonated. His particular point was that many of the best martial artists, once they have achieved a certain level of mastery, feel that they should boil away the fat from the martial arts. They strip them down to their basics and just teach the motion and theory that make them effective. They build “formless” martial arts systems, like Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, which are often devastatingly powerful. But his claim was that they never could have made these achievements without first having learned and mastered a “formful” system.

His claim was that the forms taught them grace and power, and once the knowledge that they gained from those years of practice was so thoroughly internalized and natural, they were able to transcend the forms, extract their truer essences, and then abandon them. And he did express skepticism that anybody approaching a formless system as a martial arts novice would ever truly understand or be able to achieve mastery.

Of course, others will disagree, and as a relative novice myself, I don’t feel like I’m qualified to hold forth, or that I’ve even made the argument correctly. But I do believe, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, that the best way to abandon “rules” is to understand them first, and so I appreciate your current efforts. I’d just encourage you to remember that as you seek, you aren’t starting from the bottom of the hill.


I have no idea how you would go about deliberately forgetting what you know. You could try it ignore it, but even then I'm not sure how it would work.

I know that, personally, I've had a better experience going out and deliberately trying to photograph in a new and different style. Ten years ago I put up an exhibition of landscape photography at the high school that I taught at and the dance teacher approached me and asked if I would like to try dance photography. It was an amazing difference -- 179 degrees opposite from the careful, measured style of landscape work with a tripod and small apertures. I felt like an idiot and struggled to get anything as a decent image. As you can imagine, though, it was a tremendous learning experience.

I would think that heading "towards something new" would be a lot easier to navigate than "away from something old". But the "away" tactic could be even more exploratory and interesting, in the end...

Sounds like you are on the same wavelength as Kirk Tuck :) -> http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/#!/2013/01/on-more-serious-note.html

"Although I haven't had any students for well over a decade—almost two. Sad, that."

Mike: just in case it helps somehow, I feel I am one of your students, since I discovered TOP a few years ago.

Keep up the good teaching (from another teacher on unrelated matters): it is greatly appreciated.

Mike, if you're not inspired by your locale, why not change the way you see it? Shoot at night. Or shoot every time there's a thunderstorm. Or shoot only from the window of your car at stoplights.

Mike replies: My biggest impediment, no doubt. I am not inspired by my locale....

I found your reply to Bill Pierce interesting.

In my view, the biggest impediment to creativity is surrounding oneself with self-reinforcing surroundings and opinion. Immerse yourself a subject you have zero interest in and make it your own -- you may be pleasantly surprised at what awaits!

Self learned rules can be both limiting and freeing.....limiting in that they prevent one from seeing....freeing in that they prevent one from seeing crap.....

I signed up for a drawing course at the local art college.....not because I wanted to learn to draw, but because I wanted to push the boundaries of my ability to see.

The theory was if I wanted to improve my ability to see, I had to draw the image myself.....some truth to that.....it didn't do everything I wanted....but it helped....

I don't think there is any silver bullet, but if you write about how seeing differently can make better photographs....you're writing on a subject I clicked to a long time ago, and am very interested in.....

So I'd love to hear what you have to say on that subject.....in particular..... :)

When my kids were younger I would sometimes give them a camera and have them do the shooting instead of me.

They were completely unaware of and unbound by the rules that guided me.

A lot of what they shot was, of course, junk.

They also shot some interesting stuff in ways that would never have occurred to me.

Watching them expanded my techniques.

Shoot what is easily accessible to you. Barely any of us are inspired by are locale, yet the most inspiring locales have been photographed so thoroughly that it is almost impossible to create anything new (e.g. Yosemite.)

The most successful fine art photographers shoot intimate photographs in boring locales, mostly of seemingly boring people that are closest to them (e.g. Sally Mann.)

Dear Richard,

Wouldn't it be more logical for Mike to be MY alter ego? I mean, who'd want to invent *ME*?! But it would be very useful to have a persona who appeared to be cleverly disguised as a responsible adult [g].

More seriously, your initial comment gave me a really great idea for next week's column. Thanks!

pax / Ctein

Yes, Mike, please share the results of some of these photographic exercises. No need to fear our response; we don't bite . . . well, we may nip from time to time.

If you're going to discard all your old practices, then while editing you probably need to also throw out your old standards of what's good and bad. Or, maybe that's another exercise.


What? Do you mean I can't use photographers block as an excuse to buy (yet)another camera? Please don't tell my wife.


Interesting exercise. Reading it prompted a question whether anyone knows of work created by a blind photographer? I am not being a smart alec...I learned in August that I have Macular Degeneration in my right eye. Am now working to use my left eye thru the viewfinder. I have mused about "pointing and shooting to see what I captured???? hmmm? Tim

Mike replies: My biggest impediment, no doubt. I am not inspired by my locale....

Same here, same here. Until I came across a group of 'students' who conduct heritage walks every weekend to places around my city (New Delhi, India). And that was just terrific. Some places were as close as 1.5 km from where I stay and I had never seen them before!

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