At this time of year some Shutterbug readers are getting ready to go back to school while others, like me, feel they’ve already put in enough classroom seat time, but that doesn’t mean we should stop learning. One of the best ways to improve your photography is the self-assignment. Many people think they need to travel to exotic locations to do this, when chances are there are great photo ops just around the corner. For the past 30 years my personal self-assignment has been making images near my home. How close? I prefer making photographs I can easily walk to from my front door. This self-assignment wasn’t done for any commercial purpose and it’s personal projects like this that help us stretch our talents, skills, and imagination. What’s your self-assignment?
For the past 10 years, my personal photography has enjoyed a burst of creativity that Mary alternately credits to a change in camera brands and a change in my home office environment. Certainly living and working on Daisy Hill has renewed my interest in personal assignments, but I think improvements in imaging technology are another catalyst. How can hardware and software increase or help a person’s pursuit of creativity?
When I was studying photography at the Maryland Institute College of Art, one of my instructors commented that some of the best photographs were made in the break room. Not real photographs, mind you, but chitchat among my erstwhile colleagues about the great photographs they were going to make—someday. While some of those images may have eventually gotten made, I’ll bet only a few of my fellow students actually produced the photographs they talked about so excitedly. And that’s because it’s easy to get wrapped up in what you have been successfully doing for so long that you forget to explore what attracted you to photography in the first place. You can be so mesmerized by the pixels on your monitor that you forget to create new photographs, something that’s different from the last batch of images captured. That’s why I think it’s a good idea to not only take time to smell the roses but to photograph them as well.
One of the guiding philosophies for my personal work is to “have fun with photography” and that involves using image manipulation software to create either an idealized version, as in a portrait of a subject, or an interpretation of a previously captured photograph. Retouching portraits goes back to the hand-tinting Mathew Brady added to daguerreotypes delivered to his customers but in more recent times photojournalists have been fired from newspapers for applying a bit too much Photoshop on their images. The whole question of what is “too much” is fraught with contradictions: since we see the world in color, is a black-and-white photograph manipulated? Is burning and dodging or changing an image’s contrast a manipulation? Trying to find answers that everyone will agree on is enough to make you crazy so I don’t let it bother me because all I want to do is have fun with my photography. If you agree, here are some useful tools to help you do just that.
During a portrait session and perhaps to a lesser extent when shooting a wedding, you can control the lighting, background, and subject. During a portrait session, I try to manage everything from the subject’s pose, clothing, and makeup and the resulting photographs tend to be as much a portrait of me as they are of my subject. What often emerges from that control is a style, which is not something I’m conscious about when photographing, but the truth is that over time we all develop a signature way of shooting. The danger is that we keep shooting that same way or different versions of the same shot for the rest of our lives. Any style you develop must grow and change as you learn. Otherwise, what’s the point? As we continue to shoot and learn from experience, and reading magazines like Shutterbug, we start to tweak and improve those results until what emerges is truly a personal style.
As a creative medium, traditionalists may call black-and-white photographs “monochrome” while some digital imagers may prefer the more computerese “grayscale,” but there’s more to this medium than just an absence of color. One of the reasons that purists prefer “monochrome” is that it’s a more precise term that covers images created using sepia and other tones. Many digital cameras have Black and White or Sepia modes that let you capture images directly in monochrome but these photographs are really color (RGB) files without any color! If you prefer, you can capture your images in color then use any of the software I’ll introduce this month to convert that color photograph into a monochromatic one. You’ll also find a few useful hardware tools to make your photographic life a bit easier.
This is the time of year when readers are looking for gift ideas for themselves, family, and loved ones, so, presented for your approval, is a list of gizmos, gadgets, and gear for the digitally-minded who think they “have everything” but didn’t know that they really needed more stuff to produce that ultimate image. You can use this month’s column as a shopping list for your favorite photographer or grab a Sharpie and circle all of the goodies that you want and leave it near where your spouse eats their Grape-Nuts. It’s worked for me.
Richard Avedon once said, “I think all art is about control—the encounter between control and the uncontrollable.” That’s what a dedicated studio, no matter what size it may be or where it may be located, provides a photographer. It is a safe haven from the real world where, like the Outer Limits voice says, you can control the lighting, the background, and the subject. When working in this kind of environment, I control everything from the subject’s pose to their clothing and makeup and the resulting photographs tend to be as much a portrait of me as they are of my subjects. What often emerges from all that control is a style. Photographic style is not something I’m conscious about when shooting but the truth is that over time we all develop a signature way of shooting. The danger is, of course, that we keep shooting that same way or different versions of the same shot for the rest of our lives, so any style you develop must grow and change as you learn. To get you started, here are a few tools that will help enhance or define your style.
One of the most interesting promotional items created for my long out-of-print book The Photographer’s Digital Studio was a cartoon drawn by the brilliant artist John Grimes (www.grimescartoons.com) which showed trays of developer, stop, fix, and wash with floppy disks being dipped in and out of each one. The caption: “A common mistake in digital photography.” Years ago I labored many hours in a wet darkroom to produce a composite image showing what an historic statue would look like when moved to a different location. Digital imaging software would have let me do a better job in less than an hour and I wouldn’t have had to spend time working in the dark with smelly chemicals. Part of the reason some people even ask “why digital?” is that many believe that digital imaging is somehow different than traditional photography. That’s not really true. I think there is no more difference between the two methodologies than you would find when comparing photographers working with large format view cameras to those grabbing snapshots with point-and-shoot cameras. It’s just that the tools are different and this month I’ll introduce you to some new image-processing tools.
Dick Stolley, who many consider Time-Life’s best managing editor, once told People magazine photographers that a successful image elicited a “Gasp Factor” from the viewer. Stolley believed that if the image stopped the reader, forced them to take a second look, read the headline, and perhaps the rest of the story, the photograph passed his test. Often the best photographs—those “Gasp Factor” ones—are made under less than ideal lighting conditions. These images are made on stormy days, at the crack of dawn, sunset, or in the dark of night when getting the proper exposure can be a distinct challenge. It is those precious fleeting minutes when the quality of light provides photographers with images that separate photographs from snapshots.
You don’t always need a lens to make photographs. When I was a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art, our instructor Jack Wilgus had all his students make their own pinhole cameras and shoot images with them. I took the easy way out and used a Quaker Oats box and used photographic paper cut into a circle to fit the box as my capture media. My homemade camera produced round, negative images that I kidded myself into believing echoed the style of early photographs but now, as with many things photographic and not, I know better. Yet one thing remains: you don’t need a lens to make photographs. Sure, many new SLRs, such as the Olympus E-30 that I tested (April, 2009, issue of Shutterbug), have a “pinhole” filter but the camera itself uses a lens and internal software to create the look of the real thing. But shooting film in a real pinhole camera brings back that very “ah-ha” that Ernst Haas was talking about.
As a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art, I attended a class on color and my very first assignment was landscape photography. I wasn’t then or am I now a serious landscape photographer, but as a serious student I developed a set of personal guiding principles on the “what” and “how” of photographing landscapes that I still follow today. These four principles are not cast in concrete and are presented here only as guidelines for your own explorations in landscape photography.
As I write this, the temperature outside my office window is -11˚. It’s at times like this when my thoughts go to my favorite (warm) place to kick back and relax. Acapulco is different from other Mexican resorts because it’s a city with a wonderful history first and a resort second, and then there’s that old Hollywood connection. You can see some of my Acapulco photos in the self-published book Acapulco, Paradise of the Americas (www.blurb.com/my/book/detail/196617) with text by my friend Don Bain. For examples of my travel photography, you can preview the first 15 pages and see why I love Acapulco so much. If you would like a copy, I’ve removed all markups from the softbound edition so Shutterbug readers and their friends can purchase it for just the cost of production and shipping.
This month I’ll celebrate one of those “milestone” birthdays that everyone talks about and here in the Pixel Palace things are definitely looking up. Digital MD’s (www.digitalmd.net) Kevin Elliott repaired all of the Windows-related problems on the Boot Camp partition on my iMac and by the time you read this I’ll have installed Windows 7. Then I’ll be ready to test all of those $29 just-as-good-as-Photoshop Windows-only products that I’ve passed on as of late. There’s no news from Yahoo! about getting my Flickr account fixed but I don’t expect any and I am just too lazy to create a new account and upload all those photos—again. You can see what’s there at www.flickr.com/photos/joefarace or better yet visit my SmugMug page (http://farace.smugmug.com/) to see how my photo-a-day project is progressing and lots more.
“Human mechanisms are made by human hands, Robin. None of them is infallible.”—Adam West as Batman
What’s in your utility belt? This month, I’ll introduce you to some useful Mac OS and Windows imaging software that will enhance productivity, increase your creativity, and often costs just a few bucks. To add some spice I’ve included a few useful hardware accessories that will make life in...