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Sunday, 17 August 2014


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This is precisely one of the reasons why I switched from digital to film!

It's often said that digital accelerates learning by allowing for experimentation, but my experience was that I'd reproduce this sort of process for almost every single final shot. My eye/brain never actually learned to see a final image - I just honed in on it by trial and error: endlessly shooting and chimping and changing.

Not only did I then have hundreds of unwanted or alternative images at the end of a day, I was also rarely 'present' in the experienced moment, absorbed as I was in the screen in my hands. And from one shot to the next I learned practically nothing.

Nowadays, with a film camera, I'm significantly more restful and focused in my photography: I've trained myself not to take a photograph until I've really 'seen' it with my eye.

I've probably missed some shots, but I experience life more directly and vividly (especially while on vacation!) and I've seen a vast improvement in at least the compositional quality of my images.

Interesting post, Mike, and great sequence on how to work a subject. Did you do this by reviewing each step digitally in camera or did you rely on your instinctive film routines? It's true that judging the absolute quality of a picture in camera is almost impossible but quick compositional review is totally doeable and beats the old conctact prints (plus it's immediate feedback). Still, I shoot digital as I shoot film, no previews ever, they distract me from the scene. It also means I can't correct for glaring errors I wpuld have spotted in a preview!
The lesson though, is universal: WORK the scene, never a single snap and move on...

This touches on an aspect of photography that has positively affected not only my photographic output but also life, in general: slowing down and contemplating a scene or situation and avoiding the knee-jerk reaction allows me the time to connect thoughts with my actions—not that every situation has a solution, of course! What occurred to me recently is that the exercise of taking snapshots works towards distilling one's imagination into a single visual statement, which can be useful when trying to extract that which is visually interesting out of a scene, whether it be complex (e. g. construction site) or deceptively straightforward (e. g. dog sitting in a chair).

Halfway? Crop to remove your foot at the bottom of the frame?(!)

[Are you doing shadow recovery on my JPEG?!? Too funny. [g]

It's all black in the JPEG and would be in the print. --Mike] [But see also my reply to bongo.]

Nice example. In the given exercize, I think I might have zoomed in on the curve of that right (to me) ear and gone with that.

That said, what I find I do most often is have "usual suspects". I like to have 3 or 4 locations that I return to on a regular basis over the years. As the seasons turn and the light changes they are always and never the same. It makes an interesting challenge to my eye.

Since I moved to Northern Wisconsin, I have only found one "Usual Suspect" for certain, a couple of other locations are possibly going to become ones but maybe not. One I need to gain permission to cross a couple of fields to get closer. But in the meantime, the one I have will do. I've only just begun to get to know it and I think it has many stories yet to tell me in all of it's LF, MF & digital disguises...


Nice doggie picture. Our Rat Terrier of seventeen years just left this earth and your image reminded me of how much I miss throwing him out of my favorite chair. Choked me up a little.
From time to time my job requires me to try to help non-photographers go out there and get something useful. I give them four steps to follow and it seems to help.
Identify, Isolate, Compose and Expose.
Identify: something caught your eye, stop and figure out what it is.
Isolate: get everything out of he frame that doesn't contribute to what you have in mind.
Compose: getting rid of unwanted elements is not the same as composition. Make like John Cleese on Monty Python and "arrange the flowers nicely in a vase".
Expose: figure out all the technical stuff you need to do in the field like exposure, WB, focus, TOP readers all know the drill, then push the button and take a bow.
Pretty much what you laid out in your piece. Have a nice Sunday.

Actually it makes a very nicely balanced picture.

"...sort of grope my way to it, bit by bit, frame by frame. Trying, discarding, looking again. I do that again and again."

Exactly, exactly! That's how I work, always, whether it's shooting an image frame by frame or working on a personal project over a period of days or even weeks. I find that I discover what it is I want to shoot by shooting. One of my most successful projects took me months to whittle down to what worked.

And I love that process. The shooting and looking and thinking and reshooting and looking and thinking is completely absorbing and rewarding. (I suspect that this is the main reason that my whole career in photography had to wait until digital to take off. A digital workflow enables this working method.)

And it was extremely interesting to discover that my daughter the art student is the opposite -- she has a complete image of what she wants to paint/draw/sculpt fully formed in her head and then she simply executes it (though I oversimplify).

I was delighted to discover that Malcolm Gladwell discussed these two ways of creating in an article in the New Yorker in 2008, "Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?" October 20, 2008. The article opened my eyes when I realized that my way of approaching a photograph was not some half-assed, embarrassing broken method but just a different method.

I believe the New Yorker has opened up its archives for free for the summer, so the article should be available: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/10/20/late-bloomers-2

Highly recommended.

is that your shoe (bottom right of center)?
Photo also works for for me in landscape rotated clockwise 90 degrees..

Your composition reminds me of your "Hands" photo, of the couple in the boat.

Using a Spyder3-calibrated Macbook Air. I can see your shoe too.

A question: Is the frame you settled on near the end of the series? Or did you pick out of the middle?

Contra mani, going from film to digital was a huge relief for me.

I always shot relatively infrequently, in bursts. Which got processed later and then sat in piles that grew old. There was a great deal of physical waste material (which I'm still sorting / discarding 12 years later) and little progress because of the poor feedback loop.

A related thing sometimes ignored is that the last few generations of high end digital cameras have had tremendous imaging power, or tremendous ability to crop some smallish section out of some part of the frame and make an 8x10 or 16x20 out of it. That never worked with film. It enables a whole class of "post hoc" work that film never really supported.

Why that matters here is that sometimes you find the picture while you are taking it, and sometimes you find the picture later with the crop tool.

I used to be in a photo club with Fred Kuretski, who taught in the photo department at Cal State Northridge. He used to say that many of the important decisions that go into making a photograph are found at the edges of the frame -- both inside of it and out. Over the years, I have noticed how true a statement this is. Many of my "almost there" photos have a good subject and the interior of the frame is fine. Its the distractions and things I included or (even worse) omitted at the edges that make the difference.

I don't see a shoe in any of the frames, just black as you see in your monitor, Mike. (A hardware calibrated NEC P221W)

One of my nightmares -- other people's monitors showing an image radically different than my very carefully prepared version.

For what it's worth, I can't see into the shadows on my ipad, so your 'shoe' is invisible. Nicely done set of examples, too.

The bottom portion of the B&W image looks as it should on my MacBookAir, a nice solid black... until I turn the brightness up and tilt the screen down and look at it from a very steep angle. Then, sure enough, the shoe pops out clear as day. Instant shadow recovery ;-)

Hi Mike,

I see the shoe as well. Suggest that assuming that your audience calibrates their monitors (or their iPad screens or tablet screens) is probably not practical. If you inspect your pix with the brightness cranked up and lowered, you would be able to spot any gotchas like this one. The final pic was good (and would be better with the shadow darkened to black).

If you've got a bad screen and you view it from a sharp angle, you can see remarkably far into the shadows. I find this commonly with laptops :-( .

I can't find any trace of your shoe on my monitor in the earliest version of the photo that contains it (Dell, calibrated with Spyder 2 Express). But it's there if I push the shadows really sharply up in Photoshop (so I know I'm looking in the right place).

Just stand up and look down at your monitor, your foot becomes apparent. On the left of your foot, 28,28,28, on your foot, 15,15,15.

I have an NEC monitor that is also calibrated (colormunki). And it's no shoe for me. So don't be crestfallen, just sell the benefits of calibration...

BTW, is not crestfallen one of the most evocative words in English?

The digital camera has really enabled totally new ways of working like this. You're right there with the working picture, the next frame is a reaction to the one you just took as much as our is anything else.

There are parallels with painting here. It's essentially new, anyways, I think.

I really like this posts about the process of taking a photograph. The different approach of every photographer fascinates me because it something that shows in their body of work.

I don't like to force a photograph too much either. I learned that if I apply too much rational tought to it the composition becomes somewhat "sterile" (for lack of a better term). I find that my compositions work better when I'm between a rational and instintive state of mind.

Regarding the foot on the frame, I'm seeing it too with a professional wide-gamut and sypder4 calibrated display. I'm afraid the problem might be in your display Mike... I use various iMac's at work and from my experince, even with calibration their displays have an exagerated contrast, especially in the shadows.

Yes, we can see your shoe.

This is a very good discovery-walk piece, Mike. This type of "finding the image" exposition is precisely what I believe would be most helpful for many amateur/hobby photographers improving their imagery. Learning to iteratively ask yourself, "What's important / what's not important?" is so vital to photography's fundamentally exclusionary process. Yet relatively few hobbyists are ever exposed to that decision discipline so we end up with indeterminate kitchen sink images.

I for One shoot away - and find some pictures on the negs. Yes, Film and the 'Winogrand method', that is: inspecting the results not earlier than a couple of weeks later work best in my case. Ceebee

[That's another way that works well. I personally don't have the energy for it any more—it takes a lot of work! --Mike]

Hey the shoes there.....my iMac 27 is calibrated too......have you tried that new software for B/w Tonality Pro?....very nice I think....

mike - I don't use any fancy-smancy monitor calibration - I use on line tools - such as the one on DPR - and my montitor is spot on by those standards. i loaded your photo up in CS3
- and "auto levels" actually brightened the image up a little. I also tried adjusting brightness in CS3 turned all the way down to -150 I could still barely make out the shoe but only since I knew it was there - on the otherhand this could become your trademark -always leaving your shoe somewhere inconspicuously in the picture.

Hi Mike:

Always nice to see a photo of Butters, especially of legs!

Yes, I can see what looks like the tip of your shoe at the very bottom right of the frame. I wouldn't have noticed it if it hadn't been pointed out to me.

I seldom enlarge photos to "examine" from the web, just because they are on the web. I am using a NEC PA 271W color calibrated monitor.

Thank you for the nice article.

Best - Richard

Thanks for showing the evolution of this image. In my opinion you really found the center of interest.

Can't see the shoe on my calibrated monitor, but I think I'd have cropped about a third of the black space at the bottom, just for balance.

I can see the shoe, too, straight from the article page without any image tinkering. Also quite a bit of noise (most probably superimposed on optical features of your carpet). Didn't notice it in passing and it's close enough to black to not be objectionable, but easy to see once you look for it. (I'm on a Retina MacBook Pro profiled via i1Display Pro for 100 cd/m2; actual screen brightness was even much lower.)

I quite like the picture itself. It's funny that the tail is acting as a kind-of substitute for the fourth leg which is hidden. Subtracts some formality and adds a bit of grace.

1. When I was working for a newspaper, one of the photographers had an old shoe that he picked up somewhere, and when he was sent out on a particularly inane assignment, the shoe would show up somewhere in the shot...So when you saw a particularly inane photo by the guy, you'd always start looking for the shoe hidden away somewhere. That was with film; he would have had a great time with digital...

2. I'm trying to finish a painting of a schizophrenic can collector who I knew in Los Angeles. In the original painting, it's daytime, and the can collector is "acting out," which he did from time to time. On the left side of the painting was a grocery cart, with a plastic bag from which some Coke cans were falling. At this point, as I approach the beginning of the "finish," it.s nighttime, and the cart is gone, replaced by a howling dog, and the plastic bag is now sitting on the ground to the right. As your friend said, when I started working with this idea, I knew there was a painting in there somewhere, but I didn't know exactly where, or what was in it. Even when you have complete freedom to insert anything anywhere, it's still a difficult problem to find the picture (photo, painting.) And I want to tell you, after you have painted a complete silver-metallic shopping cart, all those tiny straight silver bars, you begin to suspect that you might be a little insane when you start to paint it out...

Curiosity killed a cat, I saved your image on my iPad and opened it into Snapseed. It took major manipulation( sliders at 100%) to let me see your foot. Be assured without such drastic editing your foot is not visible at all as was your intent

Please forgive my cheek Mike. And no I didn't, and wouldn't, do any tweaking of your image to reveal that. Four year old Eizo 22" monitor, calibrated with X-Rite Colormunki... though not recently. Browser is Opera on a Windows PC, if that makes a difference.

Only noticed it upon clicking on the large B&W version, and that was in daylight. Looking again this evening, and there's more: the chair's shadow; some texture in the carpet(?); along with a possible wavy stain there; and maybe a curl of fur in close the the edge of the chair too.

Like Rusty, it did remind me of the "Hands" photo. And Mike, I rather like it, and look forward to the next stage.

Think I've been doing too much B&W film stuff lately, along with scanning and editing. Whilst out 'Blip hunting' this afternoon, I wasn't just pre-visualising the B&W, there was grain in those grey clouds too! Only took a single frame for the day's film Blip. So spent a while before finally releasing that shutter. When I take more, I often end up selecting the first one. Less so with digital...

I do work like this; take a shot, then realise I should have done it slightly differently, and repeat. I don't usually take more than about eight, but that's for one shot, making small alterations each time until I'm there, or as near as I can get. Another view of the scene might be another eight shots.

By the way, I can still see your shoe. I have just calibrated my monitor (20" 2008 iMac) with my Spyder3pro and it is fairly clear. I also checked with the A to Z density wedge on DP Review, where I can see every step. I wonder if the blog software is changing it somehow.

Hey Mike,

I think your final composition is probably your most creative personal work I've ever seen you post. Having said that, no one ever mistakes me for a great photographer or a great photo editor. Nonetheless, I "call em as I see em".

As for the rapidly-becoming infamous shoe in the photo? That's what the healing brush in PS is for!


Hi Mike,
If you haven't seen it, The Mystery of Picasso is a lovely process oriented movie. Just Picasso painting on your screen. Sometimes he goes further than beauty to make something else (I prefer the
beauty--he has to transcend himself).

p.s. I loved the picture, but I couldn't stop staring at your shoe (I'm laughing out loud here because no matter how hard I stare it's just blackness down there). It's actually a cool picture.

I see the shoe also, in my browser, and quite clearly (sorry). Nice job describing the thought process, which of course is the whole point of the post.

Mike, I just love it when a snapshot turns into a great image like this one (and the one of your son on the boat). I have just come back from two weeks in Namibia where I worked hard all the time on my photography...but somehow I often find these 'snapshot' moments more meaningful....

'Tomorrow over morning coffee I'll talk about why this picture is only halfway home at this point.'
My guess (and my own second half of the way as well): Print it, stick it on the wall and look at it time and time again for at least a week. If it survives that test, then, and only then, is it truly finished and allowed to stand on its own legs. Right?

[You got it. --Mike]

As Giovanni has already said, a useful reminder to 'work the scene', and that shouldn't be unusual, but it is becoming less common in one branch of photography, film. I bury my head in my hands when I hear "film (35mm) slows me down, I don't take nearly as many pictures as I do with digital". I'd say whether film or digital there are only ever the required number of pictures to take to sort your ideas out, not more or less, and can only assume people (maybe film newbies?)now slow down more with film because of the current price. Because I can't ever remember doing anything different, film was used freely wasn't it, or is my memory going?

And for the record, I'm using a calibrated monitor and see no shoe.

We can put all the effort we want into calibrating our monitors, but it's /other/ people's monitors where our work gets seen these days...
I do calibrate my monitor, but i also have a failsafe: i check how the photo looks on my ipad. I figure that if i am lucky--very lucky--people will view my online files on a screen as good as the ipad, so i should know what they are seeing. I also find that ipad screens are relatively consistent, and available to some degree all over the world, so if i am talking with someone remotely about my--or their--photos and we're disagreeing about how the shadows or whatever should look, often i can say 'look at it on an ipad (or iphone) and then get back to me'. At least then i have some confidence we might be looking at comparable starting points.
Looking at your file (what comes up when you click on it) on an ipad with no adjustments, there's a pretty obvious shadow from the chair, then a lighter area below that, and your foot clearly visible against that lighter area.
The ipad actually punches up the blacks compared to my calibrated monitors, so if there is something you want black, but it isnt black on the ipad, i'd say you might want to check your settings.

That feeling of knowing that that there's a photo "there somewhere" is very familiar to me. As my girlfriend will attest, if I'm out with a camera, I'll frequently stop and stare at something. I'll walk left and right, move my head up and down, step forward and back and around or behind obstacles, and otherwise look like a vaguely insane person for half a minute. Some of the time, I'll lift up my camera and start taking pictures. Much of the time, though, I just shake my head and say, "There's something there, but I can't quite find it." As time has passed, my tendency to leave the camera untouched has increased, since it is always disheartening to flip through two dozen failed photos of the same promising-looking opportunity.

Mike, I think you'll find that it's JAY MAISEL who was photographed, not reclining, but "buried" in the mountain of slides - a picture that's used, by the way, in Steve Simon's excellent book "The Passionate Photographer.'

'look at it on an ipad (or iphone) and then get back to me'

I hate to tell you, but on my newish iPad Mini Retina, I see no shoe in any of the images. If I crank the brightness all the way to the top, I can make out a touch of a grayish blob in the lower right in maybe two of the images, but I never would have noticed it and certainly can't tell it's a shoe, and the iPad is set way brighter than normal....

@joe holmes--
Are you looking at the in-line picture on the website, or the standalone file that comes up after you click on it? Because if the latter, i am very surprised; it is quite obvious at medium brightness settings (med-low ambient light) on several apple screens i checked. In the in-line version otoh i can only see the shoe because i know it is there, and if i look very hard.
If there really is that much variation in the device, i'll be sad, because it has been a useful technique for me for several years now.

Your workflow so aptly visualises a favourite quote of mine that applies to all aspects of art and design

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery"

So, minus that shoe you'd be gold ;-)

Bit late for this discussion maybe - but this article seemed both relevant and interesting:


That may be the best photo, artistically, I have seen from you ever. Outstanding.!

And from what you started with, I would never have gotten there.

Also it is a wonderful example to show to people who don't believe black-and-white can be artistically powerful in digital.

By the way, I also feel that this supports the philosophical approach to photography that the subject is really not that important, it's the picture which is important.

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