« Back in the Saddle (Blog Notes) | Main | The Inevitability of Unintended Consequences (OT) »

Tuesday, 29 November 2016


I am having this problem with my son who is currently taking a digital photography course. He is taking the assignments too literally. If the assignment is "Shoot something with backlighting", he goes to the nearest lamp, puts something so it is backlit - usually me or the dog, and bam!, got that one!

I wish he would explore and experiment more. (I kind of wish the teacher would whack him upside the head and tell him that while he is technically fulfilling the requirements, he is taking *lousy* photographs. I wonder how I can get him to be interested in the photography rather than the assignment.

You wrote...."nobody likes just looking at things through a rangefinder window..."

Well, I must be nobody. One of the key reasons I've used an M for 35 years is the way it allows me to see the subject (and even around it).

I've yet to find an EVF that comes close.....more like looking at a TV screen.

My days with view cameras not only allowed provided mesmerizing views, but served to improve my compositional skills. I learned why later, through the book "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" (by Betty Edwards), that it was much easier to draw a portrait based on a photograph if I turned the photo upside down.

Great post Mike. Hits a few points that come up in my day to day shooting. I like your delineation of wanting or not wanting to control. I solidly sit in the loose camp. I find myself constantly nudging my clients to let go of pre-conceived ideas. For professional photographers with clients, you have the added wrinkle of aligning your desired level of control with the client. Sometimes very difficult.

Then this idea of working a scene. I often find shooting in one spot for an extended period of time is like peeling back layers of an onion or even like stretching - in the exercising sense. When you first reach down to touch your toes, you think that's all you have. Then again - a bit further - and so on. I will often take laps around a space - working the area with just a 35mm lens, or a 50mm with shallow DOF or just a 70-200. Then change lenses and mindset - circle again. And then often just sit in one spot - in many cases on the ground or mingled in with the subjects. Melt in and then shoot. The scene matures over time and you begin to see more. Different light entering from various directions. Differing composition possibilities.

My primary frustration lies in the editing. I shoot a lot. I work a scene. Editing is a moment of reckoning that I often never find the time for and it leaves many potential projects unrealized.

Thanks for the mental prompting!


That was beautifully written and full of wisdom and truth.

Thank you

Some would describe the two types of shooting you've described as right brain (intuitive) vs. left-brain (logical). It's a myth that anyone is exclusively one type or the other. Speaking only for myself, I take a more methodical approach when I'm shooting professionally (i.e., for money) and can control variables such as lighting, contrast, color, composition, etc.

When I'm doing street photography I find I get my best photos when I'm not thinking but reacting, with minimal thought. I have no idea how an image is coming together, I just have a sense that something is about to happen, so I need to raise the camera to my eye and release the shutter NOW.

Neither approach is any better than the other; the results are all that really matter. I also find that even the most methodical approach benefits from an openness to serendipity, while spontaneity without craft results in poor execution of a good idea.

[Hi Gordon, I didn't really say that either one is exclusive of the other, and I did say that poor work can be done in either mode. My point is that each of us tends to gravitate towards approaches and subjects that naturally appeal to us and that we're psychologically comfortable with. Some people like solving problems, other people like taking "the easiest course downhill, like water"; some people like big productions with lots of sound and fury, other people like to be quiet as mice and steal pictures unsuspected. Some people like to be in control of elements of scenes even when they don't need to be; other people are delighted by serendipity. Etc., etc. And yes, of course we can all photograph in different ways when called for...in fact sometimes a variety of approaches can inform the other, just as having an avocation might counterbalance and enrich what one does for a living.

In my opinion it's oversimplifying to reduce it to "right" or "left" brain, assigning one-word characteristics to both, especially when those terms themselves are not rigorous--cf. Wikipedia: "Lateralization of brain structures is based on general trends expressed in healthy patients; however, there are numerous counterexamples to each generalization. Each human’s brain develops differently leading to unique lateralization in individuals." --Mike]

I've not used "shoot" for over 35 years because of the association with violence. And now that photography is getting sullied from a number of sides, I wonder if the facile way that "shoot" has replaced "photograph"(verb,) whether it might serve photographers to regain some good perception by more often saying photograph. Anyway, I like the words "photograph, photographer, photography." I'm not a shooter but a photographer, and I don't shoot, I do photography.

PS Mike, would you say to a violence victim by way of asking, "may I get a shot," or "may I shoot you?"

PPS Am I being politically correct? Perhaps, but, have you ever had a loaded hand gun pointed at your head? I have.

I read this post and then listened to Tim Harford talk about his new book, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. You might enjoy his discussion of Keith Jarret's most famous concert.


Interesting article and I agree with your main point; We are only limited when we limit ourselves.(at least that is my summary of it).
But I've got to say, you nearly lost me altogether when you wrote "nobody likes just looking at things through a rangefinder window"
Come on man, that is just silly to write. Plenty of us DO enjoy looking through a rangefinder window and find it vastly superior at times to an EVF or traditional slr/dslr viewfinder.

For nearly five years now, 95% (or more!) of my serious photography has been done at night, within walking distance of my house.

And I'm fairly prolific, too, because I typically do two or three outings per week, with each one lasting between two and three hours.

It's surprising both how much, and how little, my neighborhood has changed over this time. Just recently, for example, I photographed for the first time a scene that I must have walked past at least 50 times without ever paying it any attention.

And thanks to the recent super moon, I was also able to photograph several other scenes that had eluded me due to a lack of sufficient light.

On the other hand, while I photograph extensively in the same area, I rarely ever "work" any particular photograph.

I am fundamentally an intuitive / instinctive photographer. I pretty much suck at being consciously creative -- well, in the artistic sense, anyway -- so I generally photograph only those scenes that have, for one reason or another, caught my eye.

I rarely work a scene to find a photo, although I do carefully setup and adjust my camera to optimally capture the photo (which is not always immediately obvious) that attracted my attention.

I find this process is helped considerably by using a camera that has a fixed focal length lens, because my eye has learned to "see" only photos that I can actually capture and isn't distracted by photos I cannot.

Of course, this means there are any number of other photos that could be taken of any given scene, but those matter not at all to me, because I'm only interested in my photo, if that makes any sense.

To paraphrase The Rifleman's Creed: "This is my photo. There are many like it, but this one is mine." 8^)

Oh man! So many things here in one post!

Of "shoot" & "shooting"

Oh shoot, I'm getting wary of this being a problem. We have, as photographers, etc., been "shooting" pictures for almost two centuries. Why, in heavens name, should we stop using the word in that context now? I won't, even though I often tell a friend, "I'm going out to take some pictures".

In one of your many sub-discussions above, you referred to photographers' "shooting styles" - another common phrase. It's been so much a part of our photo life, let's "shoot" away and let it be!

Even though I have spoken of "firing" off many "frames" at a time - something our modern cameras do effortlessly - I would be way less sympathetic if we borrowed another provocative modern line, that of "emptying the clip" (instead of saying buffer).

Moving on:

I am reminded of a few moments just yesterday, as I drove home from Thanksgiving in Oregon and was motoring slowly through a most beautiful redwood forest on a muddy dirt road - and the "light" was magnificent! I enjoyed the unplanned moments, and jumped out of my car on numerous occasions to "snap" away. But, nevertheless, I felt an uneasiness. The "problem" hit me as I finished my drive home - I felt my picture taking choices had been cliche-ish in nature, in that I was taking pictures initially in the same "controlled" way I always do when confronting rare opportunities like this. I felt I failed to take good advantage of what was before me. The problem was three fold:

First, I never seem to have the time to take the next step - to "focus" on some unusual things I'm seeing but not always sure on how to approach. I am forever confounded by the fact I use most of my available time thinking in ordinary terms and not enough thinking outside the box (sorry) - to look at what is before me in a "different light" if you will. So any potential creative spirit I may have runs out of time or the favorable light runs out! This is a repetitive issue that gnaws on me constantly. I wish I could occasionally "flip" my initial impulses on how I approach my photography!

Secondly, I am just like you, Mike, in that my mobility skills and quick acting abilities have deteriorated. My knowledge at using the camera is better than ever - providing I can set up in time.

Third, I left an essential tool behind - my tripod. Duh...

Gabriel Figueroa was a Mexican Director of Photography. Older American's could remember his work on The Night of the Iguana, Two Mules for Sister Sara and Kelly's Heroes .

Here's a quote from award winning director Luis Buñuel (Belle de jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty and That Obscure Object of Desire): "It was during this shoot that I scandalized Gabriel Figueroa, who had prepared for me an aesthetically irreproachable framing, with the Popocatépetl in the background and the inevitable white clouds. I simply turned the camera to frame a banal scene that seemed to me more real, more proximate. I have never liked refabricated cinematographic beauty, which very often makes one forget what the film wants to tell, and which personally, does not move me."

Maybe you should have followed Luis Buñuel's lead, and turned your camera 180° more often 8-)

BTW I like Butters coming in from top left. Here's why, Slavko Vorkapich, motion-picture montagist and noted cinema theorist, said (paraphrased): something coming in from the top left makes a viewer full good, while coming in from the bottom right causes them apprehension. That's simple gestalt psychology.

There was so much in this post that I could relate to, and not only in the "shooting" realm. When I was (much) younger, I pretty much could do as you did, just "see" the page I had read. Now long gone. Today, I may have two or three magazines open, and a book or two, and pick up whichever tempts me at the moment, and continue reading from where I left off. I call it senior-onset (I'm nearing 75) ADD.

But I did not understand "if I ever manage to calibrate the Epson". You just bought a super NEC monitor. That's the first thing you would need to calibrate, using the stuff built into it. So, say that's done. Your Epson printer had some software to load. Say that's done also. Non-Epson paper? Download the manufacturer's profiles for your Epson. Do you print out of Photoshop? Set the printer properties for no color management, set Photoshop for Photoshop manages color. Set up for soft-proofing, identifying the paper you are using. Then, turn on soft proofing for the image (the "make my image look bad" setting, per Kelby). I've found that I seldom need to make more than the first test print using this method. (and here's a link with a PDF going into greater detail: https://www1.udel.edu/cookbook/scan-print/softproof/sofftproof.pdf )

Taking a peek at your favorite picture, I immediately thought of using the L*A*B color space. Roger Cicala's in-depth 2013 article on LensRentals clued me into this strange area. Snow scenes have always driven me crazy, but using this color space gave me results that I was very happy with, especially printed large. (here's the link: https://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2013/08/fun-with-color-vision/ )

The overly PC make me both laugh and cry. And yes, like many USCitizens who live in metropolitan areas, I've had a loaded gun pointed at me—if they didn't pull-the-trigger, no-BIG-deal.

BTW I hear/read many photographers say I'm going to pull the trigger and add another piece of gear to my arsenal.

BTW2, if you are on a movie set you will hear parents of young children say kill the baby. Lots of argo ain't PC.

Speaking of myself, if something really stops me in my tracks, I experienced that "working the scene" destroys it. I'll better just take the picture, maybe adjust my position by a meter or so, until it looks "right" in the frame.
On the other hand, sometimes I have the lingering feeling that there is a picture around here, but I just don't see it. In this case, sometimes "working the scene" helps; if not, I'll just make a mental note and come back. Mostly, the picture will reveal itself - maybe not today, not tomorrow, but some day it will.
For this reason, I return repeatedly, often over years. The places that I photograph are small, about a square kilometer. It is surprising how many pictures they yield.

I "solidly sit in the loose camp", too. In fact, much of what @John Gillooly describes is exactly how I find myself working. Except, I'm an amateur so I don't have to listen to clients. And, I'm often in spaces I can't walk around in (on a float or a beach, on the edge of a road (parked cars on one side, speeding cars on the other)). But I do find that I just arrive somewhere that looks promising and just start shooting. And then, I guess having got the "obvious" subjects out of the way, I start to look around and change lenses (or zoom in-out) if I have that option, and concentrate on what starts to feel like the right thing to shoot (in the given circumstance) and try to have some discipline (bracketing exposure, different depths of field).

Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Mike. Despite sounding (above) like I know how I do it, I haven't really said this out loud to myself until you posed the questions and that's a testament to the great value of discussions like this (and the blog and the writer who starts those discussions :-)

I think one needs to grasp the zen of being (present) before even thinking about the zen of shooting. I am not sure shooting can ever qualify as zen. Mission, maybe. But zen? In any event, I submit the zen/mission of shooting always subtracts/detracts from the zen of being (there). To what extent you allow that to unfold is perhaps a better way to frame your question.

Printing snow scenes can be very difficult. Just sayin'.

I find that my best pictures are usually the ones I did not think too hard about, but they are always a result of having spent a lot of time thinking about/taking other pictures that were not as good.

One bad habit I do have is getting too attached to the place where I happen to be standing when I see something nice to shoot. I try to make myself walk around more. But then sometimes I'll think about it too hard and the pictures go bad.

While I program computers professionally I dabble in both photography and writing, and I find that both have this nature that you can notice yourself getting better at it while spending time repeatedly doing mediocre work. Then every once in a while out of nowhere you will get a gem. Then, if you work hard enough at it you can get the gems more regularly. This seems obvious, I suppose, but I think it's hard to learn how to do.

(BTW, programming has this nature too, but in a different way that would be too much of a tangent to get into).

Expectations are a problem: they make it easy to miss the surprises that present themselves.

Shoot with your heart; shoot what moves you.

Be open to what is there.

Carry a camera everywhere and see what happens.

Mike, over on Steve Simon's blog a recent entry about being "Amid the Chaos", poses similar questions regarding our style and biases combined with technique and subject matter to produce meaningful images. Is your new book (in the works) along these lines? For some of us, this is the path to understanding the "mining" process. Thanks for all the "digging" and hard work you do in the photo field.

Gregory Crewdson is the one who takes all the freedom he needs. He builds and composes anything he wants without restrictions.
Robert Frank was not free at a all. He had to depend on what came up and had to get the chaos of the moment under control.

Great article Mike.

I have often noticed that whether an image looks good or not frequently depends on the size of the image and the implied 'scale' of the scene.

Images that look wrong on the camera's LCD often turn out to be the best ones when viewed on a 27" monitor or printed, and vice-versa.

I think your article also alludes to motive. Why do we shoot?

Many are seemingly motivated by process and others by message. I guess you could call them camera first or image first photographers. Some will shoot until they get an image, others will wait until they see an image (even if it means arranging it painstakingly from scratch) and then shoot.

I am definitely in the latter camp. I take fewer images every year, mostly because I know that most of them will not be very interesting as images before I even take the camera out of the bag.

In fact, some of my favourite places to look at do not translate well into photographs.

Although I use the word 'shoot" in conversation I have removed it from any e-mails and avoid using it on the phone. "I am going to Cleveland to shoot the Republican National Convention" is a phrase I just don't want to use. I fear it could be bad for business.

My comments here are regarding your interesting response to featured commenter Miserere :

On selecting from my "raw assets":

The process of selecting my images from an outing is lengthy, usually years! Each outing has its own dated folder and very short title. The duds are eliminated immediately and then I proceed to work on maybe two or three of my favorites. I don't really ever rank any of the rest - they all stay in the folder.

Over the years, I casually go back through my folders, and the second or third time around I can delete more that I just know are not ever going to interest me. All the rest just continue to "gnaw" on me. I may do something with them or my heirs will have to delete them!

On receiving input from others:

I like to do it! My favorite story is about a redwood scene with four massive trees, which would produce a nice 28 x 42 inch print. Before making the final print, I made a test print which contained only the right half of the scene. I showed it to a friend who said she liked it better than the original larger scene. I did some careful cropping and the result was a 14 x 41 inch print that has become my most sold print (8 copies). On what is a happy irony, I no longer have a printer that could produce the larger image!

I really have to strongly second your comments about going ahead and producing images that "resonate" within you. The excitement I feel about my own work is, frankly, almost the most rewarding and heartfelt aspect of my life. So I mount to sell what I like, and if no one else wants it, my soul isn't wounded! I eventually give things that "hang around" too long as gifts - or they go up on my own walls. I print much to just enjoy for myself too.

You "threatened" to say more - a "long(ish) essay"? Hope it happens!

"My pathetic mental pandering to the picturesque annoyed me so much that I took a radical step to correct it—every time I took a clichéd setup, I would turn the camera around and take a picture of whatever happened to be in back of me."

Open-mouthed laugh here! Love it! Bronze it!

What great post, and what a thoughtful set of comments (already!)

Eamon Hickey's comment also describes me very well: I love the process of walking around with a camera, looking and recording. The outcomes matter too, of course---but not just in terms of the photographic results. Photowalks have a way of emptying of my mind of unwanted things. The feeling of satisfaction and relaxation at the end of a walk can be wonderful.

The closest analogue I know is a hard swim (swimmers will understand). Even if you struggled, and your stroke didn't feel right, at least you got in there and had a go. And at the end you're still rewarded with the same wonderful warm afterglow, and the bone-deep relaxation, and the world looks aright.

I'm glad I put off reading this until I had some time; the comments that have accumulated add to an already excellent post.

It's interesting to me how different we all are in our approach to photographs. I am always amazed at painters and photographers who can construct an image out of thin air, like the Gregory Crewdson photo. I have tried numerous times and the results have never even come close to being satisfying. The same goes for portraiture if I need to direct the subject. I don't know how many rolls and sheets of film I have wasted trying to "create" a photo. Closest I can come is envisioning a subject will do something interesting and get setup in case it happens. But I do love to work a scene. Usually the first picture is not the best of the series.

"It's going to make a great print if I ever manage to calibrate the Epson (I'm not there yet)."

Most likely it's not the printer, but the monitor settings. Your new monitor can almost calibrate itself, but the settings used by default are probably not ideal for printing in your office. I use multiple Calibration Targets for SpectraView based on whether I'm doing photo editing or non-photo work (since it's so easy to switch between them). For photo editing I have two that I use based on the time of day due to differing light levels and color temperature in the office. For work at night with warm white light bulbs try a white point of 4500K, 80cd/m^2 and a contrast ratio of 250:1. Images will initially look yellow and dim on screen, but will probably match your prints. If that's the case adjust the images until you are happy and make a new print.

The comments to this entry are closed.