On seeing a photograph – Part 1 If you want to shoot something, just use a gun.

I’m a visual person. I learn quicker from one YouTube video than reading a stack of manuals. I like looking at pictures whether they’re drawings, paintings, or photographs. I look for several aspects of images; the locations, light quality, and creativity. As a photographer, I get inspiration from seeing other people’s work. I try to understand what the artist saw and learn, so I can blend those ideas into my work. As you would guess, a lot of frogs get tossed back in the water before a princess appears.

At times, when people find out that I’m a so-called photography expert, they’ll pull me aside to ask for my advice about cameras or shooting. I’m not a big equipment techie as I think most cameras are more capable than their users are, so when they ask me which body to buy, I just usually steer them to the brand they want. I really believe that newbies get more from learning technique first. Those skills transfer across camera brands. If my coaching is successful, the next thing that usually happens is that they treat me to a pile of their vacation photos (vacation, kids, pets, goats, etc. are all interchangeable here).

As I look through their image stack, I have so many suggestions that it’s hard to know where to start. A common thing I notice is subject placement, or more specifically, consistently centering the subject. It tells me that instead of composing, they’re aiming. I sometimes get in trouble when my stupid mouth automatically blurts, “Well, if you were using a gun, you would have killed (him, her, it).” As an example, I found an image on Flicker’s Public Commons section titled Christy Mahon on the Telephone. In spite of what I just said, I like this image; it works regardless of what I’m talking about, so I’ll use it to illustrate my point. As you can see from my markings, the poor ol’ railway signalman would have “taken-it” in the left nostril. The composition makes me wonder if the photo is a picture of the office or of Christy?

Christy Mahonin the cross hair.
In this photograph from the archives, the photographer has centered the subject’s head. Is this the best subject placement for the story you’re telling?

It’s easy to fall into this trap because cameras often have visual clues that trip you. The focus screen below is an example of what I mean. Although the circle is a focusing aid, it acts like the bull’s eye on a rifle scope urging you to center on your target. It’s a common beginner’s trap that photographers quickly learn to avoid.

Nikon Split Ring Focus Screen
Good or bad, many cameras have subtle cues that can encourage center placement.

So, what’s wrong with centering? Well, err … nothing, and if that’s what you want, then have at it. Centering is actually how we see. We go through life looking at a series of scenes on which our eyes stop for an instant before moving to the next. Our brain processes the information so fast that it seems to flow—like in a movie. We focus using our vision’s center, while our peripheral vision is fuzzy—out of focus. If we detect movement in the corner of our eye, our eyes instantly flick in that direction. For self-preservation, we need to know what was moving. If the movement’s not a threat, then all’s well and we relax. The brain is constantly centering the world around us. If a subject is centered and balanced in an image, we experience calm before we move on … or take a nap.

Now, if we move the subject off-center, our brain tries to restore equilibrium. In this micro-struggle we sense tension and that creates a wee bit of emotion. Remember back to your Psych 101 class when you learned that people remember things more intensely when there’s an emotional attachment. You want your viewers to stop in their tracks when looking at your work and that’s why artists have learned to intentionally use this tension in their work for centuries.

The point that I’m making is that the center of your viewfinder, screen, pad, paper, canvas, or whatever is unimportant. Instead, concentrate on how your subject relates to the edges or frame. Stop aiming and think about composing within that frame. Train yourself to scan the entire area and become aware of what you’re including in your composition. Equally important, is knowing what to leave out. Where are you placing your subject? Where is the horizon (if there is one)?

A question often asked at this point in this discussion is, “Where should my subject be if not centered?” Fortunately, it’s not a secret. Leonardo Da Vinci, Rembrandt, O’Keefe, et Al., used this technique. The ‘feel good’ spot is around the one-third mark, and recent scientific studies seem to confirm its validity (a topic I’ll save for another discussion). An accepted guideline is to divide your canvas into thirds—in a tick-tack-toe pattern. Where those lines intersect, are your composition’s power points and the most effective place for your subject. X marks the spot if you will.

Christy Mahone in vertical composition.
The shot is a vertical crop of the original moving the signal-man off-center. How does this story compare to the original?

Returning to the example photograph of Christy, I have two versions of the image cropped using the so-called Rule of Thirds; one horizontal and the other vertical. Look at the versions and see what you think. Each revision has the same two players; Christy and the depot. For you, how does the story change between the editions?

Christy Mahone in Horizontal Crop
In this version, I’ve cropped the original image horizontally while leaving Christy off-center. Has the story changed? Is it for the better or is it worse?

In this post, we’ve discussed the camera’s viewfinder. Every camera has one and often it’s misused to aim the lens at the subject. I argue that it is a more powerful tool when used to compose your image as intended. A first step in seeing a photograph is intentionally placing your subject for the best impact on the story you’re telling. By choosing where to frame your subject, you’re beginning to see like a photographer. I know, the process seems cumbersome and tedious, but you wouldn’t still be here if you weren’t willing to try. I assure you that with practice, this skill becomes ingrained and you’ll stop thinking about it.

Until next time … jw

Free App Guaranteed to Improve Your Photography

Shortly after moving to Congress, I joined the Wickenburg Art Club (WAC) or more specifically, the Photo Group of WAC. I joined for multiple reasons. Being new to the area, I wanted to meet like-minded people and I felt that being a club member would open doors to show my work. Joining met both of my expectations, but now there’s a price to pay. When you tap into the benefits of any organization, you’re also expected to contribute and, in my case, I’ve been “volunteered” as a committee member whose mission is to organize a half-dozen photography seminar. The goal is to share our experiences with members looking for help. They’re essentially photography classes taught by journeymen.

Sunrise at the Bridge
One of my snapshots of Friday’s sunrise.

I spent a small part of my technology career as an adjunct faculty member teaching community college computer classes; including Adobe’s Photoshop. In a structured education system like that, students start with a history lesson where they’re taught about Atget, Stieglitz, Weston, et al. but we’re going to blow that off. Instead, I think we should start with a fundamental that transcends all cameras. It’s a skill that every photographer struggles with and few (including myself) ever truly master—the skill of seeing. It’s not a binary thing where you either got it or you don’t, but a continuum. We’re all somewhere on that spectrum and some of us sweat to improve.

At art shows, an occasional customer will comment while rifling through my bins, “Wow! You must have a fabulous camera.” Although I assume that they appreciate my work, it could be construed as an insult.  It’s like saying Alton Brown is a great chef because of his pots and pans, or Renoir had magnificent brushes (not that I put myself at that level). The fact is that I do have a couple of good camera systems, but they’re just tools. On their own, they won’t make me a master photographer.

A camera is a key tool in photography, but you can make good pictures without spending a fortune on fancy cameras. For example, look at the fabulous work being done with smartphones. To be a good (on the way to great) photographer, there is an app that’s even more important than a camera. It weighs about three pounds and you need to lug it around all the time. I know it sounds cumbersome, but you already do. The app lives at the back of your eyes between your ears—it’s your brain. OK, maybe that’s the hardware part which is a state-of-the-art processor. My point is that you need to train yourself to see like a photographer. It takes practice, but like they say about Carnegie Hall, “Take the subway.”

For these seminars, I’ve gathered some thoughts on how to start your journey. There are too many for a venue like this blog, it’s more suited for a book, and I’m too lazy to write one of those. In my upcoming posts, I’m going to take each idea in turn and write about it. That way you can take a break in between and think or practice what we’ve discussed—in the grown-up world they call that method distributed learning. After that, I’ll get into camera techniques and explain what the buttons do—and why. Instead of a lecture, I’d like a discussion knowing that some of you are more advanced on these topics, so I ask you to chime in. Ready or not …

Till then … jw

Change Is In The Air

Have you ever noticed something good but didn’t want to spoil it by talking about it? That’s been the past couple of weeks for me. Now I think it’s safe to say that summer’s finally over! The temperature hasn’t broken the century mark in Phoenix for almost a month and in Congress, it hasn’t cracked 80° for the last week. I’ve even broken out a light sweater to ward off the morning chill—relief at last.

Much like spring, the Sonoran Desert autumns only last a couple of weeks before winter sets in. Of course, our winters pass for other people’s summers. We have nice sunny days, but you may need a jacket now and then. It just rains more often. We don’t get fall color like they do in Flagstaff, the cactus stays green. The only plant that takes fall seriously around here is the desert broom which flowers and releases clouds of feathery seeds that cover everything in sight. It’s as if your dryer vent went berserk and spewed lint over the neighborhood. Unlike the leaves in Vermont, it’s not a cherished sight that tourists flock to see.

Desert Broom In Bloom
In fall, the desert broom flowers and then spews millions of feathery seeds into the air. It’s more annoying than cherished.

It’s that time of year when we clean and put away our travel gear. We don’t go abroad now. Instead, the rest of the world comes and lives with us. It’s the beginning of the annual snowbird migration. Locals are busy planning shows, galas and festivals to entertain them … and to help separate them from that last quarter in their pocket. We work hard at it and save up all the money we take in so that next summer we can afford to travel and get fleeced by someone else.

It’s also time to shift away from last year’s travel stories and photographs and begin to plan our trips for next summer. In the coming months, I’ll don my velvet jacket and sit by the fire, pipe in hand, scouring camera catalogs and studying how-to videos to improve my photography. It’s an endless journey.

At the same time, I committed to helping my local photography club host weekly photography seminars. A few of us are putting together a syllabus so that we can share our experiences with newbies. We’re planning to start these sessions after New Years and we’re gathering material for our presentations.

I think that some of this stuff may interest you too. How do you feel about being a ‘beta-tester’? As my thoughts congeal into coherent ideas, I want to post them here. My hope is that you can give me feedback like: was the idea clear, was it too technical, did it help or was too basic—or too advanced? Perhaps you already have a photo questions that you’d like to ask. You can ask a free-range of topics (Just don’t ask about the velocity of a fully ladden swallow). Do you want to know about cameras, improving your pictures, making frames, or putting your work on the Web? If you ask, I’ll try to get you an answer even if it’s from someone else.

I’m also open to having guest experts write articles. If you’re familiar with a camera or a technique, I invite you to share your knowledge with us. There is so much to learn about photography, it’s impossible for one person to know all of it. My plan is to start simple and try to disentangle the complex.

I’m excited about collaborating with the club group. I can see that it will take up my free time, but I can also see that these sessions will be helpful and rewarding. Isn’t that what retirement is for? I hope that you’ll join in on our experiment.

Till then … jw