Photographs Everywhere

Defining photographic art

It is true many people do regard photography as merely a reproductive medium, and the photographer as simply the technician. And if this were just about your holiday snaps then it would be a valid point.

So let’s start with my definition of photographic art. I say my definition because there is no stock answer it means different things to different people.

For me it’s about creating a beautiful image that is an interpretation of the scene that I saw in my mind captured on film, rather than just a recording of what is already there.

It’s about the photographer being the choreographer of the various components; the composition is critical, as is the lighting, weather conditions and the colours at play.

It’s not just about pressing the shutter release, although timing is everything. Patience comes into play too, as you wait for all the components to be perfect all at the same time.

Some things you can control, but the weather well that constantly throws out surprises that can add that hint of drama to a picture or send you home disappointed.

It’s these uncertainties that add the challenge, and this results in creativity as you respond to the situation. Other photographers will have their own criteria, but we all are producing very personal pieces of work that we feel passionate about and that are a representation of our interpretation of the world.

A photograph – more than just a sheet of paper with an image on it?

Oh yes! Typically a photographer will capture an image that pleases their eye. They will create something that is close to their heart, and therefore give a little of themselves in the image.

Effectively they are allowing you to see how they perceive the world to be, one moment at a time. Add into the fact that many photographers print their own work (once they have an order!), and sign it then you could say you are buying a piece of history – or designer art!

In other words you are not buying a mass produced print, and naturally the price reflects this. You are buying into the reputation of that photographer and you will expect to pay more. When someone is starting out and building reputation then you are investing in the potential of that person.

You won’t pay as much, but you’ll be backing your own instinct and demonstrating your belief in that person’s talent. Contemporary photography is affordable art.

Subject matter – does it matter?

Personally I don’t believe it does, and I mean this in the sense that people will be drawn to your work because they have seen something of yours and liked your style, and typically that means they like your choice of subject matter too.

My preference is for landscapes and increasingly flowers, whilst other photographers prefer sport, people or a more abstract approach to name but a few.

I think the key to preserving artistic integrity is to shoot for your own personal satisfaction, although naturally as your reputation builds you will develop an understanding of what collectors want, but for me I always have to love the image myself to want to share it with the world. Anything less and it stays in the drawer!

I still experiment, and search for new subject matter, but my photographic style is what it is. It just keeps evolving.

A new language

Understanding the language of the image is something quite individual to the viewer, it does not explain itself in the same way to each person. It is subjective. And although some may view photography as easy, believing that there own point and shoot cameras can produce similar results to a master photographer are confusing the issue.

After all most of us have made paintings at some time in our lives, and may still own paint brushes, but wouldn’t necessarily look at a painting by a master and not consider it to be art would we?

It is the heart and hand of the author behind the brush, camera or pen that executes the creative vision not the tools used.

Travel and Scenic Photography

First off, equipment. As much as the cheapo disposable camera beckons, get real. These cameras have fisheye lenses which I call “spam” lenses. They cram everything in, with equal blurriness and boringness. Good photos are sharp, unless you use blur for artistic effect. Sharp comes from an adjustable lens. It can be a fixed lens or a zoom, but it must focus specially for each picture. Fixed lenses are limiting for scenic pictures, where to frame the shot you may need to move long distances. Imagine using a fixed lens on the Washington Monument, when you’re half a block away! Zooms get my vote, even though they often don’t have as wide an aperture, which limits their capabilities in low light situations.

Practically speaking, an SLR is the absolute best. They are lightweight, and can be used with top quality lenses. Film SLRs tend to be less expensive, but have the limitations of film, meaning you have to get it developed and so forth. Digital SLRs are VERY expensive, so for the budget conscious either go with a film SLR or a high quality basic digital camera. With digital, resolution is also a critical factor, so look at the specs before you buy.

OK, we’ve got the camera, emotions are running high, and that’s great, but not too great! Sometimes I find a spot that is so wonderful, I start shooting like a madman, only to be disappointed by the pictures. What happened? Emotions. When you experience a place, there are sounds, aromas and breezes as well as the visuals of the spot. Needless to say, you can’t photograph all of these elements, only the visual. When overwhelmed by the spectacle of a scenic hotspot, we are often overwhelmed by all of these elements.

So what to do? Look through your camera. The viewfinder does not lie (usually). Try to see what you are looking at as the finished picture. Most people perfunctorily take pictures, hoping that somehow the shot will come out great. If you wonder how the pictures came out when you are on the way to the drug store to get them, you’re doing something wrong. At the moment you click the pic, you should know exactly what you will get. (Of course with digital, that’s not a trick!).

Now, I was a tad dishonest in saying that you can’t capture all of the elements of a scene. You can hint at them. For starters, motion. Yes, even in a still picture, there is motion. Something happened before, during and after your picture. In a mountain vista scene, you may find something that hints at motion, whether it be a branch of a tree that has been swaying in the breeze, or a river flowing through the valley below. These add a sense of motion.

Then there’s the “rule of thirds.” When you place the main object of the picture smack-dab in the middle, it is static and boring. Place it one third of the way from either side, and you IMPLY motion. Put the horizon in a landscape photo a third of the way up or down, not across the middle.

Remember, when a person looks at a picture, their eyes move. You want to frame your photo to help that movement. If you can find some lines in the scene, such as a skyline, cloud formation, path through the forest, etcetera, use it interestingly, and with the rule of thirds to draw your viewer’s eyes into the picture.

Avoid “summit syndrome.” You get to the top of Mount Washington and shoot the majestic vista. Great. The pictures come out … boring! How? No PERSPECTIVE. Big vistas will be flat unless you have an object in the foreground, such as a rock or a tree, to give them perspective. Then the eye really grasps how big this scene is. People enjoying the view is a real winner, because the viewer may identify with their emotions, giving the image real impact.

Cheese! Yes, you do have to take the family photos. It’s obligatory. But when you do, make sure that they show the LOCATION of the photo. Otherwise, you might as well do it on your driveway. Frame the scene in context, with landmarks as part of the picture. Find a way to tell as story in the picture, such as little Sara climbing up the rocks by the waterfall.

Finally, any element in the picture that hints at more senses than just the visual will make it remarkable. Actor headshots for example, tell a story about the subject. You can almost hear them saying their next lines. If you photograph a garden, the viewer may experience the aroma of the flowers. A tourist street with an accordion player on the corner may have your amazed friends whistling “Dixie.”

In summation, picture taking on travel is recording the experience in a satisfying way. Use motion, perspective, sensory, storytelling and so forth, to bring your photos to life. Oh, and needless to say, make your job easy and go to great places! See you at the overlook!

Primer on Digital Camera Printers

There are lots and lots of choices available in the market today. The top three companies are HP, Canon and Epson. So, before you go and spend your money, here are some tips on what you must keep in mind while deciding on a digital photo printer.

Firstly, digital photo printers are available in two basic types. There are 4-color printers and 6-color printers. Nowadays, there are even 8-color printers available. So, the higher the number of colors the better will be the photo quality once you have hit the print file button. Using good quality photo paper and one of the 8 color printers will give you results that rival your photo lab.

Secondly, the printing method used by the printer is also very important. There are 2 main printing methods: inkjet and thermal. Inkjet is commonly used for taking photo prints but the quality of the printout is not excellent. You need to have at least a 6-color printer to get decent print quality. Also, the ink cartridges are quite expensive and the biggest disadvantage is that inkjet printing does not provide a waterproof coating to the images. Hence, the color fades after some time.

Thermal printing, on the other hand, is much better since it not only applies a waterproof coating but is also better quality-wise. It is also more cost effective as the paper and ink cartridges used are cheaper.

Most of these printers can be purchased under $500. However, there are few key characteristics that are different in all these printers which determine their price. These are:

  • The printing width differs amongst printers. Normally the width is either 8.5″ or 13″. The highest quality printers will allow you to go larger but at a much higher per print cost.
  • If you want to print really great looking black-and-white images, then the printer needs to have grey inks as well. So, an 8-color printer would be best suited for this purpose.
  • Whether your printer has separate ink tanks for each color or does it have multiple inks in each cartridge. If you have multiple inks, then you have to replace the entire cartridge even if one color finishes. Hence, it is more expensive to replace such cartridges and you waste a lot of ink as well.
  • The ability of the printer to print directly from your camera or a memory card through a link.
  • The printing speed per minute. This can go up to 10 minutes for a colored snap, so you must properly check this out depending upon our usage.

Multi use printers are great for a busy office or household but if you want to make fine prints out of your digital images you should invest in a dedicated digital camera printer or digital photo printer. Look for models that will take the most popular memory cards straight into the printer without having to load the images into your computer.

Photography Success Without School

For one thing, my mentor taught me the Three Classic Elements to produce “salable portraits.”

“Salable” is an industry term every photographer quickly becomes familiar with to distinguish between the everyday reality of making money versus creating those “artistic competition” or “award winning prints” which don’t earn the money.

I’ve been in the business for over 17 years now and I’m still amazed that:

People don’t buy the award winning prints that you see wearing many of the ribbons at professional photography conventions.

When my clients are faced with the choice of buying an artistic pose of their child being demure and not looking directly into the camera or buying a pose smiling close-up straight into the camera, they buy the smiling close-up every time.

Not very original, but I’m telling you now so take note:

Happy people whose faces you can readily see are the most salable prints.

They’ll never tell you this at a photography workshop, seminar, Annual Convention or at a photography institute because their job is to create award winning photo artists rather than people whom simply make a living, but… if you haven’t learned all the fancy lighting techniques, then you’ve saved time because the most important thing about light is having enough to keep the face out of the shadows.

People prefer any kind of light, as long as there is enough of it to light the face and eyes so you can get a good look at the person!

The quality of light people prefer for portraits is soft light, whether it be from an artificial source like a flash umbrella or a natural source from the sky at sunset, but other than a soft quality of light they want enough of it to SEE the face of the person you’re photographing, even if it is a flat almost straight on technique.

You may not win any competitions or awards this way, but if you get plenty of light on the faces you’ll create salable prints.

This leads me to talk about fill flash. There are times outdoors when you’ll need a flash on your camera to fill in dark shadow areas mostly in the eye sockets. Just use one f stop less flash than the existing ambient light calls for. That’s enough light to fill the shadows and don’t worry about not lugging around a portable umbrella to get the perfect modeling technique.

My mentor is right again: there is no change in the sale. The customer pays for well lit faces, not perfect modeling. I’ve tried it both ways and the customer buys the same amount of pictures in the same sizes no matter what you do.

Element number Two: Body Positioning.

This is a little more detailed area, but it is important, believe me.

My basic education from my mentor began with the same advice I’ll pass on to you:

You should rarely photograph anyone straight on.

The exception to this rule will be for family and large groups, which for reasons of body placement will often break this rule. But for individuals or smaller groups of people this rule applies.

Now, when you’re not just photographing a head and shoulders close-up you’ll have to understand other aspects of body positioning that makes people want to buy their pictures. Hands. They should always be turned slightly so they are seen from the edge with fingers together, or hide the hands altogether behind your subject or somebody else next to them. Never position hands straight on with open fingers.

Simply put, anything that minimizes how much hand you see works to make it a better portrait. This is always more flattering in a portrait and you’ll see they are the ones people buy.

Crossing legs at the ankles refines the pose and minimizes this area of the body making it more appealing.

Look at it this way, what’s less of a distraction: two legs leading to two ankles leading to two feet — or two legs blending into one ankle section with blended feet? Surely it’s the latter.

When standing, one cannot simply cross their ankles unless they have something to lean against, so I will have one foot in front of the other in such a way that they taper into one general unit. Have them place their weight on the back leg (remember, they are at a slight 3/4 angle) and bring the front leg forward and slightly tilt the foot to face out toward the camera.

Whenever I’d show my mentor my portraits that I was just unsure of, it was these recurring themes that he patiently pointed out to me.

As I began to look for these simple things during my portrait sessions, my pictures got better!

I can’t stress enough how basic, but important, it is to watch for these details.

I have people come to me who went to the contract photographer for their High School Senior yearbook portrait and disliked their picture. They want me to take one that they can proudly give out to friends and family. Usually the problem with the pictures I’ve seen is that the photography school graduate “intern” who works for the contract photographer took the photo without paying attention to some minor detail. I get it right and my reputation grows from “fixing” the contract photographer’s mistake.

The techniques for salable body positioning are what you look for in any pose you try whether close-up or full body.

When photographing people full body standing, seated or reclining on the ground, noticing body angle, hands and feet is the way to “fine tune” your portrait and distinguish it from just a “snapshot”.

Lastly, I must share my favorite body positioning tool that makes it so easy to make a better portrait than someone who doesn’t really know what they’re doing: the head tilt.

A woman alone tilts her head just slightly in either direction to make a more stunning portrait. A man’s head can stay straight up or tilt slightly away in the opposite direction from his most forward shoulder but never back towards his most forward shoulder.

Element number Three: Salable Composition

There are many compositional techniques in many books, but it doesn’t take all that knowledge to make portrait compositions that are what the typical consumer considers good enough to call professional.

Once you know what the consumer considers salable, you will be able to reproduce it again and again for other clients. You also will thank me for saving you from thinking that in order to be good enough to sell portrait photography you have to create grand artistic images. You just have to know what works and be able to repeat it for the friends of your clients whom will be getting your business cards by way of referral.

When photographing one individual person, it’s so simple I don’t think you need too much input for that. In fact, I believe you know the naive simplicity with which you thought “hey, I can do this for a living” after taking some portraits of a friend or family member. Yet it truly gets challenging when there is more than one person involved.

I know of a local professional who has referred family portrait clients to me as she specializes in children outdoors. Do you know what that really means? It means she’s intimidated by having to do groupings, but that’s okay, most people are.

So here’s the rule of salable composition:

Keep everybody’s head at a different level.

Like I told you, I didn’t have a fancy College degree so my mentor had to keep it simple enough for me. In some cases, you will recognize that it’s not possible, but if you do your best to stagger head height from individual to individual, you will be creating professional looking images.

You will stand some people, seat some in chairs, seat some on the arms of chairs, seat some on the floor, kneel some, crouch some, lay some down, but you will achieve staggered head heights and salable compositions.

Tip heads inward toward one another for unity when photographing a family group.

Note that men are usually positioned higher than women.

No, I’m not aware of being a chauvinist pig, but I am aware that this is what usually sells. Not the images where mom’s higher than dad but where dad (even if he’s actually shorter!) is positioned just a head or so above mom.

Once you understand the rules, you can bend them where you need to in order to make a portrait work; but people will see that you know what you’re doing as you position them for a good composition and especially when they see your finished work.

My mentor critiqued my work time and time again over several years as I brought images and questions to him. It almost always boiled down to my understanding these most simple aspects that I’ve shared with you.

I know it’s not customary to learn photography on such simplistic terms, but trust me; I’ve had exposure over the years to many different photography educational venues such as classes, workshops, conventions, guest speakers, lectures, teaching videos and books but never have any of the teachers been willing to simply say “look, there are just a few rules to follow and people will be happy with their pictures”. Never have I received more helpful advice than I received from my mentor.

I guess if I could sum up the philosophy he embodied in word form I’d say it was rather like this:

Using Film Speed Effectively

Film speed is a number that represents the film’s sensitively to light. The higher the number the more sensitive to light, in that the less light is needed to take a well exposed photo. The number is also an indicator of the detail you will receive from the negative. The higher the number the more likely that you’ll see a graininess to the print when enlarged. Film speed goes from 25 to 1600 speed film.

25 to 200 Best for still life and portrait work, in studio conditions where the lighting is controlled. This is not the film for family shots indoors even with a camera mounted flash. You’d really need a complete lighting set up to use this film effectively. 200 speed film is very good for outdoor sunny conditions when you’re trying to get a shot of a beautiful landscape. It offers excellent detail and color saturation.

400 Considered the all purpose film. Most films touted as all subject or general purpose are really 400 speed film. When in doubt use 400 speed film. Though you may still be using your camera mounted flash in room lighting conditions. Also good for outdoor conditions, will give you some flexibility in darker conditions and where you are trying to capture a moving subject.

800 to 1200 Made for capturing fast moving subjects in all types of lighting situations. People running, playing ball, etc. This is the film you want if you want to freeze frame the action of a baseball game. This film speed can be used for capturing fast moving wildlife, like birds, but you will see less detail if you enlarge above a 16 by 20 size.

1600 This film is for super high speed shots. Unless you shooting a car or boat race you probably won’t need this film. Don’t use this for nature and landscape images the lack of detail will be obvious in enlargements.

Most of the time you’ll only need a 400 speed film for basic snapshots. But it doesn’t hurt to use the other speeds for special occasions, you’ll notice a difference.