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Thursday, 29 October 2015


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“Sucking at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something.”

It'd be awesome if I could attribute that to HCB or somebody cool instead of a cartoon character.

What if "wishful photographing" is my strength? I swear, sometimes I'll go through long stretches of time where all the photographs I make fall into this category.

Sorry Mike, but when you wrote
"Here's an idea. We ought to stick to our strengths, and not waste time making one photograph that would be just okay if the style it's in were our real style and the picture were just one of a hundred or a thousand others in the same style." You totally lost me. If you don't try it, you'll never know if you enjoy it, and never develop the technique to be good at it. Why put yourself into a box? Why limit your possibilities? Sure, you may decide its not for you, at present, for many reasons, but if you don't give it a real try, you may be missing out on something you will love. And if your first efforts are lousy, but it was fun, then you have a challenge to get better-and if you don't try, you'll never know. Don't limit your horizons. They can provide motivation and enjoyment.

The photo is actually nice - and don't quite agree with you on focussing only on our strengths. Perhaps only after we've tried a lot of things (and more than once each !) - but then there are a lot of things to try, right? And how do you decide on strengths? Easier to decide on what you like.

"Take a picture in a genre for which you know you have no aptitude, that you're then overly proud of yourself for taking because it looks semi-competent?" I'd say that sums up the careers of 95% of photography enthusiasts (including myself).

I think you should occasionally dabble in areas that are uncomfortable. That is how you grow. You learn things that you might otherwise miss.
You can also reconfirm why your are uncomfortable with that genre...

What if we really enjoy the style we're not very good at? What if we want to keep doing that style in the hope that one day we'll be good at it? Or what if we just want to take pictures wherever we are?

I feel like that every time I take a picture of a flower, a bug, or the night sky. I keep trying, though... something rattling in my skull about the law of averages, and learning through continuous failure. ;-)

"P.S. My picture of Gordon on Tuesday wasn't a street photograph, it was a portrait that just happened to be taken on the street", but wasn't the other photo of Gordon classic "street" except that it was taken indoors?

I do that. I'll spend time post processing it, get it "just so". Then I'll look at it and realize it wasn't worth the time and toss it, like I should have done from the start. I have to believe there's something worthwhile in the exercise.

Your photo is actually almost really good. Get rid of the guy in the white shirt (or reposition him), maybe orient yourself a little differently and you get a great line of "men in black" (though you'd probably need them to be positioned a little more fortuitously). The instinct was there, but you don't find great shots on a "hit and run".

I actually realized that with my nature photography years ago. I'd go somewhere like Yellowstone Park or the Smokies and come home with "nice" shots, but what can someone who doesn't know the area do in a one week trip at some arbitrary time of year, at the whim of the weather, compared to photographers who live and breathe the area. I remember spending 15 minutes at a popular picture spot overlooking Yellowstone Falls. In that time, I couldn't count how many other people came and went, including one young guy with some sort of large format camera ! (Nothing too big, might have even been a Graflex ?) How many people visit it in an hour, a day, a year ? And how many opportunities does someone who lives there have to get there in different seasons and weather ?

I think it's fun to dabble in things we're not good at, good to be honest about it. The best photographers are usually the ones who work the hardest, so no reason to expect greatness at something you don't do regularly.

Question: why exactly (in your opinion) is that *not* a decent street photograph? I'm walking on eggshells here, because to the (ahem) untrained eye, it looks like it would fit in with my street photographs. It's in B&W, the horizon is tilted, there is no specific "gotcha" thing happening, it shows a relatively undefined scene that you have to look at for a few moments to really embody and project yourself into it...

That said, I would have rejected it *as part of my project* because it's missing some fundamental geometries and/or specific human elements that I look for in my work. But here's the kicker; I'm pretty much the only one who sees those things in my street photographs (or so it seems, anyway), which brings up the big awkward question of "if you're the only one who sees it, what's the point in showing it?"

That's what I meant by "the untrained eye" above.

So if you engaged yourself in a project whereby you continued to seek out whatever it is in this shot that works for you, and you occasionally found it, enough to create a small body of work, would it be worth the effort even if you were the only one who "got" it? (Or, put another way, if you're the only one who "gets" it, is it worth getting got?)

Aside: when I was in art school I would bring up rhetorical questions like this only to be met by blank stares. So if nobody picks up this thread, that's OK because I'm used to it. :-)

"Here's an idea. We ought to stick to our strengths, and not waste time making one photograph that would be just okay if the style it's in were our real style and the picture were just one of a hundred or a thousand others in the same style."

Except that at one time, most of us had no strengths or style and it was only by photographing a variety of different things using different styles that we eventually developed the strengths and the styles we have today. How do you propose that we develop our strengths and style otherwise? I certainly didn't expect to end up photographing the subjects I do, in the style that I do today, the first time I put a camera to my eye...

Personally, I have found that shooting handheld "street photography" has helped my tripod-based nighttime urban photography, because it has trained me to look at my compositions in a different light (no pun intended.)

Which isn't to say that I do either style of photography especially well, but to an extent, the two very different styles do (IMO) serve to complement each other. It also helps that I enjoy photographing both, because this means that I have more chances to use my camera(s) than I would if I intentionally narrow my scope as you seem to be suggesting.

That reminds me of school where they force everybody into barely meeting the standards of everything instead of excelling in the one thing they were born for. What a waste of potential and happiness!

I thought you had already written Chapter II...
"Color is the photographer's crack." MJ

Instead of "Mind the gap" maybe "Mind the horizon line" built into the XT-1? (ducking ...)

When I posted steadily to flickr one of my followers, who I respected enormously, was constantly telling me to ditch architectural and scenic shots, that my real genre should be people.

At first I didn't believe him, but as I gradually became more honest with myself, I realized he is right. When I start shooting more that is where I will concentrate.

On the other hand... shooting outside of our comfort zone can have some value, and shooting things that aren't our usual focus can make us better at the things that we do focus on.

For example, I know that shooting street makes me a better landscape photographer. My ability to quickly see and respond to things is fined tuned by shooting street.

I guess it depends on how seriously we want to develop our strengths. For some folks getting a few "not bad" shots in a variety of genres is what photography is all about, while at the same time admiring the masters. And I suspect even you could take a much better street shot with more time... That's the thing about photography, it allows us to pluck a really good note once in a while, even if we know we aren't writing a symphony.

Mike, that's a decent street photograph indeed. Now I wonder what it'd be like if you had the necessary skills! (Kiddin'!)
Besides its content, there's one good thing about your picture: dynamic range is spot-on. The light line could easily have come out blown, but you did a great job; shadows could be dodged, but they're correctly described. (A bit too correctly for most, given the present trend of heavily contrasted black and white, but perfectly fine nonetheless.)
One thing that doesn't please me is the picture being tilted. Many do it intentionally, and to good effect, but to my eyes it looks as if you've been less than careful with level. This is a subjective impression, though, and I'm sure it would have been easy for you to get it level - should you want to.
I concur with your advice on clinging to one's strengths, although I believe one has to find out what they are first. I am terrible at portraits and am pleased if one comes out OK, but I'm out of my depth with that particular genre, so I don't insist. I've discovered I'm not the new Yusuf Karsh the hardest possible way, so I don't even give it a try. (Really: I'm so bad at it I once made a beautiful Cape Verdean 20-year old girl look like a vampire!) I'm more at ease with architecture and street photography, so these are my hunting grounds now.
Finally, thanks for thinking of us and proceeding with Chapter Two of "Mastering Photographic Technique." I'll be looking forward to reading it.

Mike, free yourself of these notions of being in a category of photography. I have followed you long enough to how obsessed you are with "street photography" and your insecurities. Just the way you think about cameras and gear is passed through that filter.

I think this a wonderful example of street photography. I always seem to "get" your vision when you post one of your images in your blog.

I just finished a workshop with Chip Simone, a well-known art photographer and street photographer here in Atlanta, and he says not to worry about categories or projects, just take pictures of things that fascinate or move you. He says to "look for the gift of the day" and experiment. Chip studied with Harry Callahan at RISD and ol' Harry, it turns out, was constantly experimenting.

[[Here's an idea. We ought to stick to our strengths, and not waste time making one photograph that would be just okay if the style it's in were our real style and the picture were just one of a hundred or a thousand others in the same style.]]

It's hard to tell (one of my weaknesses) if you're being serious here or if you're just being silly, but assuming semi-serious at least:

There is a fundamental difference between /recognizing/ your strengths and /sticking to/ your strengths. I agree with the former and would strongly discourage the latter. Variety spurs creativity, IMHO. Even if the results are not "good" (for whatever measure of good you're using) there's no reason the results cannot change over time.

Honestly, I don't think genre matters? It's just a label in the mind. If it's out there singing "Take me, take me" just press the shutter. I like it anyway. I went to a marvellous small exhibition of Harry Gruyaert's work today. Class trumps all genres.

I like it, Mike. It is a quiet street picture, good velvety tone, light and composition.

It took me 20+ years to realise that all of genre I was interested in lead to a style (street) that I was not even aware of, or the term at least, for most of that time.
I wonder if the lack of awareness of a style to aim for helped me develope my own style, that later fit in with convention, or allowed me to waste time "fiddling" with other subject matter simply because I had no clear plan?
Further though, did diversity allow a gentle moulding of the primary style, not funnelling me down one path?
Its a journey worth taking either way.

"We ought to stick to our strengths, and not waste time making one photograph that would be just okay if the style it's in were our real style and the picture were just one of a hundred or a thousand others in the same style."

It took me many, many (too many!) years to learn this.

Maybe it's better to follow your heart than stick with strengths? If I had just stuck to my strengths, I'd probably still be working at the cheese factory where I was a laborer during my college years. I was a natural at physical labor. During one particularly brutal shift, I lifted a total of 27 tons of scalding hot molten mozzarella from the mixing tubs onto the conveyor-belt that led to the molding machine. The boss was very happy and offered me full time employment if I ever needed it, but instead of sticking with my strengths, I went to flight school, taught myself photography, and I'm now also learning to write. I wasn't particularly strong in any of those pursuits when I started out.

Of course there is an alternate argument. We all are operating on limited time so maybe it's important to pick our punches. Too much dabbling leads to unfinished projects and an unfocused life. I am not convinced though. I've been involved with photography for 15 years, and at this level of experience, I'm finding that time spent with things like street photography, which I'm not very good at, is important. These experiments in unfamiliar territory feel bigger than a learning experience. Instead, I feel like I'm gathering my powers. Bridges form between previous insights and multitudes of new photo possibilities open every day.

I disagree. It is important to stretch yourself into areas outside of your strengths as it can make your strengths more well-rounded.

Many years ago, I was pretty much exclusively a landscape photographer. That was it. I was decent at it, but I was a one-trick pony. It wasn't until I learned how to be a portrait photographer that I learned about lighting. It wasn't until I became a wedding photographer that I learned about story telling.

While I certainly wouldn't call myself a street photographer, skills learned doing it has helped me be a better photographer and a better person.

Sticking to your strengths is okay, but you will never know what all your strengths or weaknesses are until you've tried everything you can.

I know I have weaknesses. I am not good at doing fiddly things so when doing art I'm best off with pastels and charcoals, where I can achieve good results without having to include the details my clumsy paws are no good at. (This was not why I took up photography) I'm very good at electrical fault finding, but as an installation electrician I'm good, but very slow.

I like this shot in the railway station, with all the subjects in different poses. I can almost smell the station. I think that it would work a little better if the bottom was cropped to the horizontal crease at the ankle of the nearest man, but this might be because when I take a shot that cuts half of the subject's feet off, it annoys me intensely. Another weakness, perhaps.

Then again, I feel that that crop makes the nearest man the first thing you look at. But is this that same weakness influencing me?

"...stick to our strengths..." is a great idea, but I don't know that anyone started out with "strengths"; we developed them as we grew from things we liked but weren't good at. Or am I the only photographer who's improved his game to "acceptable" or "decent" by practice? I know my weaknesses and I shoot to improve them into the "not too bad, but don't quit your day job" category. Just like my volleyball skills, unfortunately...

Not sure I agree on this one, if we're talking about personal Pictures.
I do think that you are correct that working to our strengths is a better use of our time and effort. But I also think too much time is spent categorizing pictures and styles.
My attitude is 'if it looks like a good picture, press the button".
If it stands the test of time it's really a good picture, but that is mostly for others to judge. If you've pleased yourself, you've done your job.
If you've pleased others, that's a bonus.
What's the alternative? Analyse the style first, and if it is not your main competency put the camera away?
We may or may not execute well in a style we don't usually practice, but good pictures are to rare not to try.

I know where you are coming from. It's easy to convince ourselves something works, especially if it touches a personal nerve. Then again, if one is observant and prepared (preset focus, exposure properly set) then the cliche of luck favoring the prepared may come into play.

I also have to add that, as per this photo, interesting street photography seems to be more difficult these days due to so many people being glued to their electronic devices. Less interesting gestures, people caught in their own thoughts, chatting. It saddens me to walk by a bus stop here in downtown Edmonton and literally see all of the folks waiting looking down at their distraction machines. It's like a sickness.

"We ought to stick to our strengths, and not waste time…"

Mike, if I had followed that advice I would have had only one career (in which I would probably have been successful and miserable). Instead I have had three diverse and satisfying careers by living life on the principle: "play around with all sorts of things and stick to the one for which —at the time— you burn with an unquenchable passion." If you have passion enough, you will probably develop the aptitude…though it may take some time, as it certainly did with me.

With the clarity of hindsight, I don't think my time has ever been wasted.

Oh I don't know, try it all. What's to lose.

"We ought to stick to our strengths, ..."

If we're talking about avocational photography I strongly disagree. (And even, to a degree, if we're talking about vocational work.) The joy of photography is all about personal exploration and experimentation, not just hammering the same nail into the same board every day. Otherwise me might as well all be taking i.d. card photos. Now more that ever the costs and consequences of "failure" in a genre of photography are nil.

Working outside one's comfort zone in, say, neurosurgery may not be a good idea. Practicing a type of photography at which you believe you "suck" is a great idea. It can only help to strengthen and broaden you. Even if you continue to feel that you "suck" at that genre you will have, at the very least, developed a deeper appreciation of that type of work.

Putting my own money where my fingers are: I just bought a used Leica M9 Monochrom body. Yes, me, Mr. Color. I plan to devote a great portion of my winter work to b&w studies. Really.

BTW, your "street" image doesn't "suck" very hard, Mike. In fact, it belies a good eye for gesture and line, eh? It leads my eye from the foreground fellow right down the tunnel to the guy all the way at the back near the door in virtually the same posture. And for a bit of visual intrigue there are those two guys facing the camera. And all strung along that light line like pearls. "Sucks?" Hardly, Mike.

Oh, what the heck, Mike? Live large. Indulge you fantasy. Go on taking street photographs, if you're so moved. Best wishes.

Not sure I like this idea.

I think you need to take time off from your strengths sometimes, if only to inform your vision/muse about other ways of seeing.

Just relax and make the pictures you need to, or are paid to.

The only time I'm disappointed is when I know I've quit on a shot, coulda/woulda/gunna


Or maybe just don't worry about such superficial things and shoot what fulfills you. Others can decide what your "style" is if they like.

"This is not actually a decent street photograph...I just think it is."


Do it all the time, usually with the thought "how hard can it be?" in my head. Usually turns out much harder than I thought.

But then we can only learn from mistakes, and just shooting what we (think) we are good at leads to cliches, staleness and boredom.

"Take a picture in a genre for which you know you have no aptitude, that you're then overly proud of yourself for taking because it looks semi-competent?"

Ed Halco, above, says, "I'd say that sums up the careers of 95% of photography enthusiasts . . ." He forgot to add: and 98% of pros.

I think being really exceptional at something is determined more by level of interest, study, and, most of all, practice, than it is by aptitude.

Aptitude, if any, might ease the way, but actually getting there requires passion and continuous work.

Each to his or her own on this one, I think.

There's knowing your limitations, and realising that one has only so much time remaining... and equally there's refusing to accept your limitations in a particular endeavour.

The important thing is actually making the decision.

If we just stuck to our strengths we'd never do anything new. Besides, how did we get strong at something if not from beginning from a position of weakness?

I'm currently trying to work with a fast 50mm lens, and shoot outdoors. It's totally out of my element. I've known for years that 50mm is a focal length that doesn't agree with me, and I've also known for quite some time that trying to take pretty, shallow depth of field shots of things in nature ain't my bag either. Yet I'm out there trying to do it, at least for now, simply because I'm so awful at it! Maybe this is an exercise in futility, and I'll just move back into my regular zone and be happy there. But I feel like I've been exploring my "zone" for a while now and haven't done anything that feels really *hard*, so I'll continue on for at least the time being. It's amazing to me that when shooting in this new way I can go walk around for a couple hours making images and not find ONE SINGLE IMAGE that I think is worth a damn at the end of it.

I think your judgment is valid up to 99 percent, but there are also reasons it should never stand in the way of a spontaneous instinct to try something out of the ordinary. Why? Sometimes the maker proves not to be the judge of what is good. Among myriad possibilities, consider these two: 1) Your own view of your work might change, and 2) Another assessment is likely to be made by others (and re-made) in the future. And, since outguessing an unknown future is fruitless, and because it is often difficult to please ourselves as well as others (starting to hear Ricky Nelson sing Garden Party now), maybe the right course is simply to do whatever work fascinates you now. Probably as good a standard as any.

To be honest Mike, even if you were interested in improving your skills as a street photographer -- which is a choice, not a requirement -- the places you've chosen to live over the last decade or two would make that a challenge. The finger lakes of upstate New York are not known for their busy streets, sidewalks, crowds, public events, etc.

The thing that struck me the most about Sebastiao Salgado's show, Genesis, is that it included great wildlife, portrait and landscape photography. How many photographers are capable of (or interested in) doing that? As for me, I have never taken a decent landscape photograph in my life.

Maybe it clears the head to try something that you might not otherwise think of doing? I took a class which was being held at a nature reserve - and the instructor decided to go to a small town nearby and we shot "street" or architecture or the river or.. So I tried to apply the composition technique the instructor used in the initial lecture, and I learned something that I might not have learned had I stayed in "nature photography" mode.

I will not scold you. I will just present my own personal anecdote.

I am mostly terrible at street pictures.

I still take them sometimes and just don't show them to anyone. This is easy with digital cameras and I don't see too much wrong with it.

Then once in a while I get lucky and it's worth it.

Now that I think about it though, I'm not really super at making any sort of artistic statement with the camera. I tend to think I'm an OK technician that can see good light once in a while. So really if I were too concerned about this I would not take any pictures at all.

I think you're creating a false dichotomy by labeling this a "street photograph." It's a *photograph* -- no more and no less. The categories we use are simply helpful descriptions, not rigid boxes.

In truth, it's a pretty decent street photograph, but that fact is itself a compelling critique of much street photography, because, as you suggest, it really isn't exceptional in any way.

If you have to over-think it then life would be easier to assign subject/style/genres by strength on an 80/20% time-average basis.

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