The winter solstice and the seasonal holidays are behind us. Instead of taking the tree down and packing the fake pine boughs away in the closet, we’re making strategery for next year. Judging from January’s schedule, 2018 will be a busy year.
One of my 2017 goals was to take part in four Art Shows. I thought that would be a big enough number to keep us busy throughout the year. We actually doubled the goal and finished the year doing eight shows. In 2018, I set the bar higher and set the goal at eight hoping to match last year’s success. With the New Year less than a week away, I’ve been framing prints for three January shows in Wickenburg.
The biggest of the three is Wickenburg Art Club’s annual Double Takes exhibit. For several years now, the Art Club’s photographers submit photographs that the club’s sculptors, painters, and weavers use as creative inspiration. In January, the photograph and interpretation are displayed as pairs. This year, the newly formed Writers Group gets to gets to be part of the action. Artists have selected four of my photographs and I’m excited to see the results. The show’s grand opening is the evening of Saturday, January 6th from 1:00 to 4:00 pm. If you can join us, Queen Anne and I would love to see you. The show will run in the Clubhouse Main Gallery at 188 South Tegner Street through February 6th. I hope you can stop by and enjoy the show.
Then, starting on Thursday, January 11th, the Photography Group is hosting a series of eight basic photography classes. These sessions are open to club members and the public and they’re free. The informal classes will be held each Thursday at 1:00 pm in the Clubhouse meeting room and should last a couple of hours each. A different club member will lead each session and the classes cover a wide gamut of photo subjects including two meetings where you can bring in your camera or photographs and ask questions. The classes are intended is to take some of the mystery out of photography and help you understand your camera and the creative process. I hope to see some of you there.
One good thing about photography as an art is that you don’t have to lug around a truck-load of equipment. You don’t need easels, dozens of brushes, tubes of paint, and canvases. All you need is to show up with a camera and some light. That’s an important enough concept for me to repeat myself. There are four variables in photography: the photographer, the subject, the camera, and the light.
If photography is that simple, then why are some people so much better at it? As I’ve previously said, most people assume it’s the camera, which I’ve already discounted. “It must be the subjects then,” you’d suggest. My answer to that would be that you could open Google and search for photos of Delicate Arch (Arches National Park Utah). There are hundreds of photos of the iconic arch, but some stand out from the crowd. Of the two remaining variables, I think that learning to understand lighting is the more important. “But, light is light,” you protest. “Au contraire, mon ami,” I answer. You say that because you haven’t bothered to notice.
When I took classes at Art Center College of Design, the school felt that lighting is so important to photography that the first two exercises we had to complete involved lighting. In the first, we had to make shapes—a ball, a cone, and a cylinder—out of white paper. Then we photographed those shapes before a white background of the same paper. The point of the exercise was to teach us how to separate the foreground from the backdrop using light. The other assignment was to recreate the studio lighting from a ‘40s movie studio still-shot. Instructors assigned us a photograph that we were to analyze, then set up the lights and shoot our model using a single-, two-, or three-light set-up. “Well, that’s all good in the studio, but you don’t get to do that out in the wilderness,” you say. And I’d repeat my French answer. If you want to improve your photography, you need to understand how light works. True, the sun isn’t on a light stand that you can just move around, but you can learn when the light will be better so you can tell your story—even if it means having to wait for it.
There are two types of light sources; a point source and diffuse source. In a studio, a point source is a spotlight. It throws off a narrow beam of light creating dramatic highlights and shadows (high contrast) and it’s often called a key light. Sometimes the dark shadows are softened with asecond—less intense—light called a fill light. Outdoors, the spotlight’s equivalent is the sun, moon, or a single street lamp. On the other hand, a diffuse light is broad and even; like a fluorescent light, a window without direct sunlight, or even a spotlight with a semi-opaque cover (a diffuser). The light is softer and the shadows are not as harsh. In landscape photography, you get diffuse light on a cloudy day, in a building’s shady side, or at dusk and dawn.
With any light source, its angle to the subject makes a difference too. If the light is directly behind the camera, it will flatten details, while a sidelight emphasizes textures. A light behind a subject—called a backlight—will emphasize feathery edges—like hair or grasses—giving a halo effect. Finally, an overhead light is just another side light from a different direction. Each of the lighting directions—and combinations of them—will show off different qualities of your subject. As a photographer, it’s up to you to choose the light angle that tells your story best.
Finally, the third aspect of light that is important is color. Part of a stage director’s arsenal is changing the color of lights to set the tone or mood in a play. People who aren’t aware of small color variations, see light as always being the same because our brains compensate for it. I remember the “Stone Age” of photography, blue flashbulbs, and questions like, “Why are my party pictures so yellow?” It’s because the color of light is different between a tungsten light bulb and the sun and those color differences are measurable in degrees of heat, not in Fahrenheit or Celsius, but Kelvin—a much broader scale of temperature used by astronomers. The light bulb burns at only 3000° K, while the sun burns at 5778° K. Another tidbit about the sun is that it’s not yellow—it’s white. It’s always been white for as long as man’s been on earth. Although doing so wouldn’t be very smart, if you looked directly at the noon sun, you’d see white. Only when the sun’s rays travel through extra miles of atmosphere do they seem redder. With digital cameras, this is the topic of White Balance, a discussion I’ll save for later when we talk about cameras. For now, let’s just say that warmer colors seem romantic (sunsets and candlelight) while the bright white or bluish appear cold (icebergs and igloos).
Light attributes that we’ve discussed here combine to create something ethereal called light value. The light’s intensity, its angle, and its color are the things that successful photographers understand and use to improve their images. They show off their subject in the best light (sorry, I couldn’t resist). So, what is photography’s best light? All of them I’m afraid. It’s like asking what color or brush makes the best painting. All the light values are in your toolbox for you to use, and you must search which best suits the story you’re telling. Don’t get stuck using only one, experiment and learn what works best for you and for the style you’re developing.
It was nearly a century ago that Fred R. Barnard coined the phrase, “People say a picture is worth a thousand words.” I wonder if that statement is always true. Sometimes I look at photographs and they speak volumes, while others are silent. You may look at the same body of work and feel differently. That’s because we have different backgrounds, values, and tastes. We’re all unique. My point is that photographs, paintings, and art, in general, are a type of communication. They connect the artist with the viewer—sometimes across eons. We save art important to us on our refrigerators and in our museums because we like what they say.
There are no language-like rules to help us understand this type of communication; it’s up to personal interpretation. Some messages are simple while others are cryptic. They may sooth or repulse the viewer. With most photographs—or snapshots at least—the story is simple, “At some time, I was here and this is what I saw.” There are millions of photographs just like that posted online and they have little interest to anyone but the person who pushed the camera’s button. When I was in a Pasadena City College class—more than a half-century ago—my professor called them Record Shots. They were a simple record of time and, on the spectrum of art, they belonged in the big pile on the left. On the opposite end of that imaginary line is a short stack of Masterpieces, and everything else fits in between. What separates the two extremes is how good the story is and how well it’s told.
An artist’s job is to see a good subject and be able to skillfully capture it on a medium, photographers included. There are skills to help you along, but none are more important than thinking about what you’re shooting. I can plead guilty to mindless shooting, and I don’t know any photographer that isn’t also guilty. Unlike paintings, we create photographs in less than a second. We can squeeze the button and then walk away, never giving it a second thought. But when we look at the contact sheet or RAW image on the screen, we often ask, “What was I thinking?” The answer is, “I wasn’t.”
The idea that I’ve been leading up to is this: To move your work closer to the right-hand stack, begin to think about what you’re shooting. There is something in front of you that has caught your eye and it’s moved you enough to raise your camera and snap the shutter. Fine, go ahead. Maybe you’ll beat the Powerball odds and have one of those remarkable snaps that make the evening news. Odds are against you. But if you stop and think about your subject, you will improve your chances of capturing that lucky shot. What stopped you? Why did it make you stop? Think: “Is there something I can do to make the shot better?” Very few people shoot film any longer and certainly, you can afford to waste a few million electrons on extra frames. Here are some questions I have on my mental checklist:
Can I fill the frame—can I move in closer or zoom in to make the subject more prominent?
Can I get the subject to stand out better—if I walk to a different angle, does the subject become more prominent?
Could the light be better—do I have time for the light to change or should I come back when the light is better? This is difficult in travel photography because you’re usually on a one-way train.
Can I simplify the composition—do I need to change angles or wait for people (birds, cows, glaciers, etc.) to move, or maybe I need to pick up some garbage or close the bathroom door to hide someone on the toilet? Remember the discussion about scanning the entire viewfinder and deciding what to include.
Is there something that I’m leaving out that would make the shot more coherent?
Is the subject about to do something interesting—if I time it right, can I shoot when the subject jumps over a puddle?
To paraphrase a line that we saw on Mr. Robot last night. In the show, they were talking about the game of chess, but it works for photography as well. “If you see a good shot, look for a better one.” You’re probably thinking, “Great! Now I have to hang around for days for that to happen.” If you’re on assignment for National Geographic, you bet you do. That’s what you’re paid to do but unfortunately, neither of us works for them. Most of the time, what I’m saying takes an extra minute or two and, with practice, it eventually becomes second nature. With experience, you even save time because you don’t learn to omit the record shot.
Finally, I have a hard and fast rule: When you’re back at your desk, instead of a bunch of snapshots, you will have a photo series. Some better than the others. When you edit them, be ruthless and pick out the very best then get rid of the rest. If you can’t do that, keep them to yourself. Never show them to anyone. Only show your best. Of course, if you have an editor or art director that will be their job and you won’t have a choice. Then again, if you had an editor, you wouldn’t be reading this.