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Monday, 26 September 2022


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Another post up my alley, and I scored one of the Sam Abel Libraries. Free shipping in the U.S. too.

I watched that Sam Abell video from to beginning to end. It's just superb. I stopped it regularly to think, to write down some thoughts, and especially to look at my own work from the perspective he offers.

Digital has really facilitated working a subject because of near limitless frames available to make sure that you got THE subject. For me, there's a definite bell curve of best captures where they get better after the initial shots and then the point where I should have quit shooting. In the film days, the limitation of film's frames meant that I rarely went to the far right of that bell curve.

One book that I find worth rereading is Ansel Adams last book, "Examples - The Making of 40 Photographs". The hard cover is currently $27.95 at Amazon. I've found this particular book to contain a wealth of aesthetic discussion, general philosophy and approach, as well as technical discussion about the challenges of specific well-known photos and how he overcame them. The aesthetic discussions tend to be emphasized and are often quite different than would one would expect if one only thinks of grand vistas.

I have both "The Life of a Photograph" and "Stay This Moment"
and pulled them both off the shelf while watching the video. It was really well worth my time to hear him speak of his approach to photographing his subjects and to see the printed images he discusses in those two books. Thanks for the link I really recommend it for anyone who enjoys photography and wants to learn from a master photographer like Sam Abell.

Me too!

What about working a subject over a period of years? I still think you should continue working this 26-Apr-2021 "Day of Spring" location: https://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2021/04/random-snap-days-of-spring.html

[That's right across the lake from me. I look at it often, but there aren't very many places from which I can get a clear view of it. And right now I don't have a lens for that. But thanks for the prompt; I'll continue thinking about it. --Mike]

Loved the Sam Abell video and then loved even more the video that auto-played right after on Platon: https://youtu.be/BDpqt-haLLM

I made a few notes while watching the Sam Abell video:

  • compose back to front
  • low angle
  • good grey light
  • setting first, subject second
    • order of importance: setting, expression, gesture
  • internal framing (e.g. a frame within the frame)
  • link a still-life to a landscape
  • compose and wait; patience
  • head and shoulders above the horizon line
  • sometimes a few feet (or inches) in height allows you to separate layers
    • stand on a ladder, a table, ...
    • stand on your tip-toes
  • often there's (only?) one element that needs to fall into place
  • micro-compose (minute attention to detail)
    • maintain separation: "nothing touches"
  • greatness is not the goal, "good" is (i.e. don't let perfection be the enemy of good)
    • quote: "the path to greatness goes through goodness"
    • regardless of the photograph – such as a snapshot – strive to make it as good as you can

If I had to choose a central theme from the talk, I suppose it would be: compose and wait. Set up the basics of your composition, then stop thinking about it while waiting for that one missing element to fall into place.

What also stood out was: compose from back to front. Just from a purely physical point-of-view this seems to make sense. The further away something is the less affected it will be by minor movements and adjustments you make to get the closer things into position.

I watched the Sam Abell video again, or half of it, after I realised that I wasn't getting the same thing from it as I did on first viewing.

I now find that kind of 'classic' photography as outdated as I do the stuff that informed my taste in the 1970s - HCB etc.

Although his advice about the details of making a good picture are sound I find his compositions look contrived and self-conscious to me now. Too much about themselves (and how clever the photographer is) and not enough about the subject. If they were really good you wouldn't notice how cleverly they'd been composed.

At least Abell shoots in colour....

[I always felt similarly about Garry Winogrand. He talked a lot about "getting out of the way" but his composition seemed contrived to me. You could always tell a Winogrand, even when it wasn't one! To me, his friend Lee Friedlander was the one who put me in a place and let me see it. I more readily felt the "thereness" in Friedlanders from the street. At least Winogrand shot in B&W! :-)

So what informs your taste these days? --Mike]

That’s a very nice occupational portrait of those woodcutters, Mike. Quite timeless, actually.

A good place to find books like Sam Abell's is Bookfinder (Bookfinder.com). I looked for both of the books by Sam Abell that you recommended and found both new and used versions available. Condition of the product varies, but, from my general experience, the descriptions are reasonably accurate, and service is good.
A worthwhile place to look for books you want.

A couple reflections on the Abell video:

It's always interesting to watch and listen to the thought process and visual workflow/process of a photographer - especially one that has enjoyed success.

In the end, I think there are many ways to get at the end goal, which is a good photograph. His method, to me, is VERY rigid.

Lots of rules, but of course the rules are broken when the situation calls for it, which seems to negate the rationale for such rigid rules? Low angle, low angle, low angle, but then "every scene looks better from the perch of a 3 foot chair." Seems like the job of a good photographer is being able to look around at the environment that they are in and adapt.

I always find the insistence on tripod for this type of work to be odd. For larger format and the film days where high iso's were punitive, I understand. But in Sam's images I see not only no camera movement, but also no subject movement, which tells me he's shooting fairly fast shutter speeds. Why confine oneself to a tripod if shooting at 1/250th of a second, for example.

As he states at the beginning, he was sort of destined and built for teaching. His deep dive into defining and explaining things tends to get very academic and ivory-towerish!

My favorite shot in the video was the cow-branding image with the cowboys. I liked seeing the process. He put himself in the right spot. The action elements came together. The red bucket on the right made it great. In today's shooting, the reality is that you will probably have frames of that scene with and without the red bucket. You will decide what works best while editing. I think it's a bit too much to claim he decided to include it. The reality is that he did not know as that guy was walking through the scene that the red bucket would be placed in that perfect spot with just enough of that guy included. Seems a bit too much revisionist planning to me. But I love the shot!

That said, I love many of the images. I really like what he produces. I went online and bought that book series that Mike linked to and look forward to a nice night with those.

Thanks very much for the Sam Abell video link. I watched the whole video with a quick meal break. I've also bought the 4-volume Radius Book you mentioned. I've always been a fan of Sam, and wish I had seen this video when I was a working photographer. I'll use his suggestions when shooting only for myself these days.
Chris Morrow

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