Using “Sense of Place” to Build Stronger Photographic Images

Posted in Photography with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2014 by spiritualized67

Hunter’s Beach (Acadia National Park)


“If all your life means to you is water running over rocks, then photograph it, but I want to create something that would not have existed without me.” ~Minor White

Wiki loosely defines the term “sense of place” as a characteristic that some geographic places have and some do not, while to others it is a feeling or perception held by people (not by the place itself).

It is often used in relation to those characteristics that make a place special or unique, as well as to those that foster a sense of authentic human attachment and belonging. Others have pointed to senses of place that are not inherently “positive.” Have you ever wandered into a dark forest, and felt a sense of foreboding? Or maybe walking through an old abandoned house makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand straight up?

It is true – some places feel more ominous than others. While I adore cities like New Orleans, there is a certain voodoo-like vibe dripping beneath the banal surface. If you’ve been there, you probably know what I’m talking about. Some would simply define this as “historical character,” although I think there’s more to it than that. I’m not suggesting some sixth-sense thing going on here, although I have always felt that some people are more tapped into the spiritual energy of a place—whether negative or positive.

Pines in the Fog


Photography is all about personal interpretation. Unless our goal is pure documentation, we should always strive to infuse a bit of ourselves into each photograph—even if we can’t change the inherent nature of the subject that we are photographing.

It goes with saying that if we don’t connect with our subject matter our viewers most likely won’t connect with our photos. If we don’t feel any passion for the subject, it will show. The first step in connecting then, is to ask ourselves this one very basic question: how does the subject make me feel?

Powerful Waves at Schoodic Point


Some possible answers might include: this place feels magical and mysterious; this place is wild and alive; this place reminds me of my childhood; this place scares me; this place is serene and contemplative. Sometimes our sense of place merely describes what we’re observing on the surface as a first impression. Other times, we can dig a little deeper, allowing the emotion we are feeling “from simply being there” to bubble up to the surface.

Dawn Along the Maine Coast


Certainly, if we’ve been there before or have intimate knowledge of the area, we might be more tuned into our emotion; more sensitive to what is happening around us. But then again, seeing a place for the first time with the enthusiasm of a curious child or eager tourist can also stir up our sensibilities.

If we are to successfully bridge the creative chasm between emotion and execution; between feeling and vision, we must first understand what it was about the place that inspired or intrigued us. Doing this brings us one step closer to translating how we’re feeling into a language our camera can understand.

Early Evening at Pretty Marsh Harbor


Unlike painters who can envision any scene they want onto a blank canvas, we as photographers are somewhat handicapped. Although like any handicap, we can learn to adapt and overcome—refusing to let the circumstances completely dictate the final result.

Yes, we can do very little to change and rearrange the scene to our liking. But we can make choices and decisions (both technical and artistic) that will hopefully reinforce and strengthen our vision. From vantage point to focal length; from what elements to include in the frame to what to leave out; from the time of day we choose to photograph to the exact moment—there are specific things we can do to make our photos work a little harder in order to communicate our true intent.

Harvest Moon Over Schoodic Point


Taking things a bit further, the elements themselves can have meaning. Actually, everything contained within the four walls of the frame matters; everything contributes or detracts from the story we are trying to tell.

For example, colors can communicate different moods. Some colors are more positive; some more negative. Some give the impression that the subject is advancing; while others feel like they are receding. Some colors project warmth; some cold. If there is a predominant color in your composition, it will impact your message, even if subconsciously.

Morning Reflection on Beaver Damn Pond


Likewise, lines, shapes, forms, textures, tones, patterns, perspective, and even the properties of light—all have inherent meaning when used in the right context. How we position ourselves and the elements relative to one another can also have a profound effect on how our final photograph is perceived. Concepts like dominance, balance and symmetry all play into the narrative.

Feather on Cobble Beach


While I won’t attempt to list out every element, choice and decision one can make when composing a photograph, it is important to understand how these all factor into either weakening or strengthening our images.

Simply showing up and having a certain feeling about a place is never enough – as we can’t expect to transport viewers directly into our minds. We must leave them with enough visual clues to at least point them in a certain direction—allowing their own experience and interpretation to fill in the gaps.

Fishing Village of Benard


I use my own photographs of Acadia National Park to illustrate these points. This was my first time to this breathtaking park, so I was undoubtedly like a kid opening his presents on Christmas morning. Everywhere I looked there was beauty and diversity of subject matter.

Long Pond


Some scenes overwhelmed me with a sense of well-being, serenity and peace; others felt wild and rough around the edges, much like the Maine coastline itself. One such example involved sitting on the edge of a serendipitous inland pond during a quiet and contemplate morning, as the fog gently rolled in over the tree line. Not only did this scene capture what I felt was the quintessential essence of being in Maine during the peak of autumn, I had strong personal feelings about being there.

Blagden Preserve


So what visual clues did I factor into my composition that spoke to well-being, serenity and peace? The high-key diffused lighting and fog gave the image an ethereal and peaceful quality. The inviting autumn colors and calm reflection in the water were reassuring. There were no people in the image to distract, and even the inclusion of the gazebo in the far background helped to project a feeling of tranquility and contemplation. My decision to compose from this particular angle to show the pond retreating into the distance spoke of a journey; of what lay around the corner.

From choice of vantage point to lens selection; from where I was standing to when I chose to photograph, I made specific choices and decisions aimed at better communicating my intent; of reinforcing the emotion I was feeling at the time.

Moon Over Eagle Lake


Make no mistake, communicating “sense of place” is subjective. I can describe my feelings like I’ve done above, but there is no guarantee that you’ll come to the same conclusion. If I’ve come close, hopefully I’ve done a reasonable job. It goes without saying that good photographs stand on their own merit—without any explanation. A picture should indeed “be worth a thousand words” if done correctly.

The next time you go out shooting, really think about things before you click the shutter. Don’t just aim to photograph what you see. Rather, photograph how the scene makes you feel. This philosophical paradigm shift can apply to any genre—from landscape to street photography.

Heading Out to Sea


Ask yourself what choices and decisions you can make that will better communicate your feelings. Put yourself into your viewer’s shoes—trying to predict how they might react. Would switching lenses help? Should you go wide or for an extraction? Blur the background or not? Would shooting at a different time of the day make a difference? Would shifting two feet to the right or three to the left matter? Is there an exact moment that would be stronger than another?

Bent Pine on Cadillac Mountain


Sense of place is whatever you want to make of it. Viewers of your photos may already have a preconceived notion about your photos (and location) – and your interpretation will either resonate or it won’t.

You exponentially increase the likelihood of a positive reaction when you can move your photos beyond just a xerox copy of the scene, imprinting something of yourself onto each photograph. Places will always have something to say. The only real question is—are you listening?

Still Waters


Larger versions of these images can be found at: http://www.danielstainer.com

The Apathetic Photographer

Posted in Photography with tags , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2013 by spiritualized67

At some point in our photographic lives, we all experience apathy. This demotivating condition can best be described as a state of indifference; the suppression of emotions such as concern, excitement, motivation or passion. Like any other psychological ailment, photographic apathy manifests itself in varying degrees of severity.

Get off the couch!

Taking some creative license in my understanding, I view the opposite (or antonym) of photographic apathy to be inspiration; to be inspired in both action and thought.

When we’re inspired in action, we proactively seek out interesting subjects to photograph or personal projects to tackle; we get off that proverbial creative couch, never letting excuses like bad weather or lack of time get in the way of our passion or goals.  When we’re inspired in action, we are driven to photograph – and are excited to do so, no matter what form this photography might take.

When we’re inspired in thought, creativity comes as a revelation and we are transported to a place where our ideas resonate freely with one another in the mind. To be inspired in thought is to see subjects in unique ways; to find that still point in ourselves where we’re photographing in the moment, allowing the essence of our subjects to reveal themselves to us in all their glory.

When I talk about apathy, I’m not necessarily talking about the lack of photographic activity that may occur during dreary winter months.  I think we can all agree that there’s a difference between seasonal inactivity and negative thinking. Everyone has an apathetic (or lazy) moment from time to time, but this doesn’t mean that we’ve reached the stage where this negative thought has become debilitating to our artistic growth.

Apathy is not a one-size-fits-all disorder, and will express itself in different ways depending on where we are in our photographic development. For the seasoned pro, apathy may be the result of photography becoming too much like work, and therefore, our once unwavering love of the craft has started to wane.

For the talented advanced amateur or emerging artist, apathy may be the result of an inability to parlay our talent into something more meaningful or sustainable, such as a full-time career. Let’s face it, it’s not easy getting noticed in today’s oversaturated Internet world.  And even when we do get noticed, it’s often fleeting.

Winter 2013

For the beginner, apathy typically results from a continued failure to translate technical understanding into predictable and repeatable creative results. Many beginners fail to progress beyond this stage. Not to sound like Oprah, but it took many of us quite a while before we finally had that technical “Aha! Moment.”

I won’t go into all the different variations of apathy, because no matter what stage we’re in or how we ultimately ended up there, the symptoms are remarkably similar.

Photographically speaking, do you feel like you lack a sense of purpose or meaning?  Maybe you’ve lost sight of why you like to photograph or what you hope to accomplish in your photography?

Do you sometimes feel like you don’t possess the level of skill required to be successful? Are you frustrated because your images lack a creative spark?  Or maybe you feel hopelessly inadequate when compared against seemingly more accomplished or established photographers?

Even when presented with ample opportunity and time to photograph, do you sometimes find it easier to disengage? Or maybe the limited time you do get is not producing the results you want or expect?

If you answered yes to any of the above, then maybe you are experiencing some form of photographic apathy.

Apathy should not be confused with any lack of innate creative ability – because one can still be highly accomplished artistically, but deficient in will power or passion; just as there are people out there who are extremely intelligent, yet lack initiative.

Of course, I would argue that apathy can impact photographic creativity, because without inspiration, we run the risk of merely going through the motions when participating in any photographic activity.  When we’re not fully engaged in the creative process, our photos suffer.  Or stated a slightly different way, if we don’t connect with our subjects, our viewers won’t connect with our photos.

While this inspiration doesn’t always equate into more compelling images, it does spur us to action, providing a much-needed kick in the pants.  And sometimes, all we need to do to re-ignite our passion is to just get out there and start photographing.

I think it is fair to say that technique and results are independent of any inspiration, and therefore it is still possible for our photographic skill to be insufficient to our inspiration.

Clearly, there is a certain degree of technical proficiency that is required to achieve any artistic vision – and I can’t emphasize how important it is to move beyond technical understanding.

Unfortunately, there really is no magic bullet to overcoming severe photographic apathy – as this may be a byproduct of a deeper-seated issue rooted in our own personal depression. I would certainly encourage those of you with more profound feelings of depression and creative detachment to seek out professional advice.

Undoubtedly, we all face overwhelming responsibility and stressors in our lives—in our jobs, family, health, personal relationships, finances, environment, what have you.  And I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that these challenges can easily spill over into our photography, contributing to a self-fulfilling and potentially destructive pattern of apathy and disconnectedness.

It’s hard to be motivated and creative when we’re being pulled in a million different directions and have the weight of the world on our shoulders.

But let’s be honest with ourselves too.  Our lives will always be complicated. If our passion for photography is to be sustainable, we must figure out a way to harness creative inspiration year round—even in the midst of endless life challenges.  Luckily, there are small steps we can take to re-energize our creative spirit.

Winter in Western Pennsylvania

Are you feeling apathetic?  If so, maybe you should consider one of the below recommendations:

  • Start a photography project: find a subject that is close to your heart, and tell a story.
  • Book a photo workshop: sign up for that cool workshop or tour that you’ve only been dreaming about.
  • Start a photography blog:  documenting your thoughts, ideas and experiences can be empowering.
  • Get out of Dodge: plan a simple day trip or overnight excursion a few hours away from your home.
  • Explore a new genre or technique: whether night photography, macro or film, try something new.
  • Donate your photography: take pictures for a worthy cause or give away your prints for free.
  • Turn off the Internet: stop living your creative life in a virtual world, it’s just an illusion.
  • Publish a photo book:  achieve a sense of accomplishment by inexpensively self-publishing your own work.
  • Get your images printed and matted: photos become much more real when you can hold and hang them.
  • Sign up for an art show or street fair:  rent a table and share your passion with others.
  • Join a photography club: share, mingle and explore with like-minded enthusiasts.
  • Re-do your photo website: re-envision a new website that will be the perfect showcase for your art.
  • Become a student again: pick up a book, take a class, read an article–it’s never too late to learn something new.
  • Stop comparing yourself to others: no good can come out of these comparisons.  Cast away all envy!
  • Accept your current status with grace:  If you’re not happy with where you’re at, do something about it.
  • It’s about the experience, stupid!:  let your experiences validate your photos, not the other way around.
  • Get off the couch:  stop making excuses. Get your lazy ass off the couch, you’ll thank me later.
  • Hug a tree:  No matter what time of year, fresh air and bonding with nature does the body (and soul) good.
  • Photograph in the moment: stop lamenting the past and worrying about the future.  Photograph in the Now!
  • Take baby steps: set clear achievable goals that will slowly yet surely move you in a forward direction.
  • Embrace chaos: you can’t change the universe swirling around you; but you can change how you react to it.
  • Imitate your kids: don’t be so serious. Approach your photography with child-like wonder and curiosity.
  • Close your user manual: settings schmettings – stop complicating things and just focus on fundamentals.
  • Take ownership: increase accountability and motivation by sharing your dreams and goals with others.
  • Collaborate: enjoy some synergy by working with another passionate photographer.
  • Switch mediums: pick up a paintbrush or write a poem – it just might spark something new in your photography.
  • Practice:  it’s easy to get in a rut when you’re out of practice. Not every shot or photo trip has to be epic.
  • Take a sabbatical:  major life events can drain us mentally.  Sometimes we need to take a short break.
  • Be realistic:  just because you’re not as obsessive as you once were, doesn’t mean you’ve lost interest.
  • Brain freeze:  you can still get great images during winter, so don’t be so quick to put your camera in the closet.
  • iPhone fever:  stay polished and fine-tune your seeing skills by using your smartphone for fun and practice.
  • Stop hoarding:  stop obsessing about the equipment. Your camera is just a paintbrush. Focus on the art.
  • Revisit old pictures:  seeing where you started just might give you clarity on where you’re going.
  • Look at other art:  seeing the world from another’s eyes can be both enlightening and motivating.
  • Information overload: take a break from EVERYTHING photographic, and just focus on simply taking pictures.
  • Celebrate the mundane: unique image opportunities are everywhere, even in your own backyard.
  • Be happy: remember why you fell in love with photography in the first place!  This is all that matters!
  • Be selfish:  most importantly, photograph for YOU, not for others!

When it comes to photographic apathy, the aperture really is half open. When you’re passionate about something like photography, it normally doesn’t just disappear, although it might dwindle from time to time, especially if life is coming at you hard, or if your mood is unusually influenced by seasonal changes.

This is normal, so don’t fret—not every moment has to be at peak intensity, and most likely you’ll bounce back to your normal obsessive photographic self before you know it.  Like the ebb and flow of the tide, our interest in photography will always have its ups and downs.  In fact, if we never had any downs, we wouldn’t appreciate and value the ups.

The faster we acknowledge and accept this reality, the sooner we can reconnect with our creative muse. Often, just a slight shift in behavior, attitude or expectations (or an exciting new project to think about) is all we need to get our passion and inspiration back on track again.

Missouri Photo Workshop – An Experience That Lasts a Lifetime

Posted in Photography with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2012 by spiritualized67
Remembering Tokyo Bay

Remembering Tokyo Bay

I was sitting on Fritz’s couch when his daughter Sue asked me squarely, “Why do you want to do a story about my Dad?” I told her, “If I don’t do it, then who will?” I started to think about the 1,000 or so WWII vets that are reportedly dying each day. As I turned to look at Fritz, the tears started streaming down my face. It was like a levee had been breached, caving under the emotional weight. Playing out like the Lifetime movie of the week, Sue started to cry alongside me.

I learned a lot in that vulnerable instant. I learned that photojournalism is about real moments. I learned that gaining access and building trust is never as easy as it looks. But mostly I learned that it’s not at all about you, it’s about the people you meet and their stories.

I had pitched a couple of interesting photo documentary ideas that week, including one about a skateboard kid who had found Jesus. Actually, before I even set foot in Missouri, I had secured full permission from Troy’s fire department to sleep at the firehouse and ride on their trucks.

Skateboard Kids (Troy, Missouri)

Skateboard Kids

I think it’s every boy’s childhood dream to ride on the shiny red fire truck—and I wasn’t sure if I’d later regret passing this story on to a fellow workshop attendee. But in all honesty, this story had been done before, and it just seemed too easy. If I was going to really learn something from this experience, I knew that I needed to push myself out of my normal comfort zone.

After many discussions with my team mentors and back-and-forth deliberation in my own mind, I chose a story about a decorated 87-year-old WWII Navy veteran who was guarding the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered. Fritz also had Alzheimer’s. I wasn’t aware of his Alzheimer’s when I initially chased the lead—although it later became a critical element of my story.

I didn’t particularly want my story to focus on his medical condition, but I also had an obligation to be as honest as possible in my reportage—and this was an important part of who he was. As they always say, “Don’t photograph what they are, but who they are.”

Fritz Takes Downtime

Fritz Takes Some Downtime

If you don’t connect with your subject, then how do you expect others to connect with your images? I knew I needed to pick a story that would mean something. It was not only important to me to record the stories of WWII veterans, whose numbers are rapidly diminishing, but I felt a personal connection because my father served in the Navy. Ultimately, I wanted to leave a lasting legacy for Fritz’s family. I also felt a responsibility to do a story that would recognize the important role U.S. veterans have played in our country’s history. I think it goes without saying that the skateboarder story probably would have been more photographically dynamic, but it would not have been as personally significant.

It was interesting to see what stories materialized from other participants that week. Ironically, many of the best stories were about simple things, such as one that focused on the town’s Laundromat. It only goes to show you that it’s not necessarily about the story idea, it’s about the execution and emotion behind it.

Main Street (Troy, Missouri)

Main Street Troy, MO

Beer Run at Buzzy’s (Troy, MO)

Documenting Fritz’s story turned out to be slightly more challenging than I expected. To begin with, senior citizens lead a rather sedentary life, so there’s not a ton of action happening at any given moment. Most of the time, Fritz and his wife were sitting around the kitchen table watching TV shows such as “The Price is Right.” At least in my case, there was a tendency for them to treat me like a guest, just as our workshop faculty had predicted would happen. I did appreciate their hospitality though.

Some of the best advice came from Director Emeritus, Duane Dailey. Duane’s a living legend and country gentleman, and I could write an entire post about him.  Duane told us, “You’re doing a dance. You initially engage them to get over the awkward silence of being there as people start figuring out exactly how they should act around you. In the beginning, you’re really setting the ground rules and directing them to some extent.”

Essentially, you engage them (for example, you might ask them a lot of leading questions) just to get them to a certain comfort level. Once they reach this level, you start backing away and you try to become invisible. Or, as National Geographic freelance photographer and MPW faculty member Randy Olson says, “You become extremely boring.”

Of course, every time I raised the camera to shoot, my subject became acutely aware of my presence, which didn’t help matters. At one point, I told Fritz, “You don’t need to pose,” to which he sarcastically snapped back, “I’m not posing, I’m just sitting here.” Yes, he had his moments of confusion, but when he was on, he was like a quick-tongued chameleon.

One of the biggest obstacles I had to overcome was the shot limitation MPW placed on us for the entire week. We were only allowed to shoot 400 JPEG images and couldn’t delete or edit any of our shots. The problem is that I tend to shoot many images in the beginning with the goal of desensitizing my subjects to the fact that I’m photographing them. This also helps to warm me up and get me in the zone.

When they are tired of all the attention, they eventually let down their guard. Sure, you can always pull out your memory card and shoot blanks, but you might miss something important along the way. The fact that I couldn’t shoot that much only made the shots I did take all the more noticeable, which made those authentic, unscripted moments slightly more elusive.

Fritz Out For a Walk

I know we all wish we could photograph like Bresson and capture a decisive moment in only one click, but the reality is that the best shots often come from capturing a series or range of “decisive moments” as realized in a burst sequence.

In other words, we shouldn’t take a machine gun approach to image capture, which is nothing more than a “throw it up against the wall and see what sticks” approach.

But by the same token, I see nothing wrong with using our intuition to anticipate behavior and shooting a burst sequence in order to increase the likelihood of capturing that fleeting intersection of emotion and compositional geometry that peaks as the moment unfolds.

Whether you shoot one image or 1,000, you still need to understand good design, composition, light, backgrounds, and of course, how to anticipate real iconic moments. You just can’t rely on your volume of images to somehow compensate for your lack of expertise in these other areas.

Dressing with Ceremonial Precision

Trust me, what MPW was trying to teach us with this shot limitation didn’t go over my head. There’s a lot behind the idea of making every frame count. Former National Geographic nature photographer Jim Brandenburg reaffirmed this philosophy in his compelling book, Chased by the Light, in which he limited himself to only one frame per day over a 90-day period.

Then again, it’s somewhat ironic that these very same National Geographic photographers will often blow through thousands of images when working on magazine assignments. I wonder what would happen if you gave them a 400-frame story limit.

So what did I learn about my own photojournalism skills that week? Well, I’d probably have to write a novel to list it all. I learned that I need to get in closer to my subjects and fill the frame, that my people shots feel as if I’m more of an observer than a participant, and that some of my shots are not as spontaneous as they could be and come off as more contrived or formal.

I will only add that some subjects and situations lend themselves to more spontaneity. I suppose that, had I been in a more chaotic environment, it would have been easier to be a fly on the wall. That’s not to say that my story was harder to photograph than others because I think each story had its own challenges and quirks.

My amazing mentor, Peggy Peattie (Staff Photographer, Union-Tribune San Diego), wasn’t shy in telling me that I shot too many frames of the same subject. Or as Peggy humorously stated, “How many different angles of pill bottles do we really need to see?” There was also a strong emphasis placed on seeking out the most dynamic lighting.

An Officer and a Gentleman

Throughout the week, we collectively learned how to research story ideas, gain access and build trust, decide when a story is or is not worth pursuing, analyze subject relationships and interactions to determine the best track for our stories, draw connections between our stories and broader social issues, use picture and editing filters to advance the narrative, and, finally, how to tell stories with honesty and integrity.

These lessons came in the form of one-on-one mentoring with faculty, group discussions, nightly presentations, student interaction, and field critique.

The week I spent in Troy with the Missouri Photo Workshop was one of the most immersive, insightful, and intense photographic experiences of my life. While I can’t speak for the Eddy Adams Workshop (another highly touted photojournalism workshop), I can tell you that MPW is one of the best, if not the best, photojournalism workshops in existence.

MPW.64 Group Shot

MPW.64 Group Shot

MPW is raw and real, and you probably won’t get much beauty sleep the week you attend. And there is a high degree of vulnerability that will leave even the most seasoned photographers crying in their hotel beds at night, questioning their own skills. But, like anything else, what you get out of it is directly proportional to what you put into it, and that requires you to take a huge leap of faith by embracing the entire experience—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

MPW was the kind of workshop where even the most accomplished photographers seemed to struggle, and the least experienced shone, yet we all walked away much better photographers and storytellers than we ever thought possible.

Circa 1942

Only 2,500 or so photographers have had the distinct privilege of walking through MPW’s doors since 1949, and I’m honored to count my name among a select few. Leaving Troy at the conclusion of the workshop, I felt like I was taking a small piece of MPW founder Cliff Edom with me. I also felt great pride in being able to document a true America hero like Fritz—an opportunity I might not have experienced had it not been for MPW.

Commander Arnold “Fritz” Kansteiner

I will never forget the lifelong photojournalism lessons I learned that week, lessons that, like a seed planted in the fertile earth, will continue to grow. There’s an organic, almost family-like quality about MPW that is hard to describe unless you’ve actually been there. From the workshop camaraderie to the insightful advice dispensed, one could not help but think that there was something undeniably profound happening at MPW.

My MPW.64 photo documentary, “The Greatest Battle”    http://mophotoworkshop.org/mpw64/the-greatest-battle/

Living the Cowboy Life ~ A Night at the Rodeo

Posted in Photography with tags , , , , on August 27, 2012 by spiritualized67

Hanging Chaps

The cowboy vigorously runs his wire brush across the leather tail of his thickly braided bull rope—a small halo of dirt disperses into the late afternoon sun. He breaks apart a tiny chunk of amber rosin on the metal bars of the bucking chute before placing some into the palm of his leather riding glove.

Night at the Rodeo

He slides his glove up and down the tail of the rope convincingly—the friction heating the pine-scented rosin to tacky perfection. “There’s an art to getting the bull rope and riding glove just sticky enough,” he tells me, “but you never want to put the rosin where you don’t need it—it just attracts dirt.”

Cowboy Americana

“The weather in Oklahoma is miserable,” he says, recalling how the severe drought and scorching temperatures this summer have put a damper on his riding enjoyment. “This is perfect riding weather,” he confirms with a warm grin.

It had rained earlier that day at the 53rd Annual North Washington Rodeo in West Sunbury, PA—just enough to cool things off. The riders were starting to stream into the rodeo staging area, and the families were busy choosing the best seats and stocking up on cheesy nachos and funnel cakes.

The Pit

Eight seconds of pure cowboy adrenalin with a heaping side of courage as a snorting bull the size and weight of a Volkswagen Beetle does its best to rid itself of the human mosquito hanging on its back.

Make no mistake, boys and girls, these cowboys are tougher than a bin of aged beef jerky. I’m one step away from calling 911 if I so much as stub my big toe, yet these guys and gals get trampled on and jabbed by a two-ton beast with horns, and they just brush it off.

Four-Year-Old Bull Rider

In cowboy philosophy, it’s not a matter of whether you’ll get hurt, it’s a matter of when—and the cowboys are the first to admit they would never let details like broken bones and searing pain get in their way.

These cowboys remind me of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail who famously says, “Just a flesh wound. ‘Tis but a scratch.” To which Arthur replies, “A scratch? Your arm’s off!”

Clown in a Barrel

All joking aside, there’s much more to these roughriders than a fancy wide-brimmed cowboy hat, a pair of designer Boulet boots, and a high threshold for pain. At their core, they’re authentic.

The rodeo runs thick through their veins like blackstrap molasses. With more character than a pair of tattered Wrangler Jeans, these dedicated athletes share a common bond and passion for wide open spaces, animals, and the cowboy way. Cowboys remain cherished American icons—not because of what they do or because of their romanticized past—but because of who they are.

Deep Thoughts

Hundreds of years have passed since the Spanish cattlemen known as vaqueros helped influence what would later morph into today’s American cowboy. Yet, the nineteenth century spirit and work ethic that helped build our country is still etched deeply into their souls.

Junior Rider Gears Up

You could see it in the intensity of their gaze; you could see it in their battle-tested hands; you could see it in how they held their heads high and proud, even after getting tossed onto the ground and stepped on. It was even evident in the camaraderie, laughter, and stories they all shared with a cowboy vibe that felt like you were passing a flask of whisky around the campfire after an all-day cattle drive.

Cowboy Prayer

The rodeo continues to be one of the most historic and time-honored forms of North American pageantry and competition in existence today—a seemingly unchanged vestige to remind us of our humble Americana roots. In a world that has become overly complicated, impersonal, and materialistic, it’s good to know some things never change—and to know our genuine icons have not faded.

As the sun dropped down over the rodeo arena and the sky turned a stunning shade of blue, I watched in admiration as the brave bareback bronc riders, steer wrestlers, barrel racers, and bull riders did what they do best—and did it with unflinching passion and uncompromising skill.

Little Wrangler

If you ask them, they’ll tell you they don’t do it for the money or the fame—they’re in it for the life.

Colton

A seasoned champion bull rider embodied this spirit when he offered advice to an anxious 11-year-old boy who was sitting on an agitated bull as it waited to launch out of its chute. “Just go out there and have fun, Colton. If you can’t do that, then what’s the point?”

Rodeo Winds Down

LARGER-SIZE GALLERY PHOTOS: http://tinyurl.com/9r68ngw

Lessons Start Early at Missouri Photo Workshop (MPW.64)

Posted in Photography with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2012 by spiritualized67

Missouri Photo Workshop (MPW.64)

This will be the first of many blog posts documenting my experience with the Missouri Photo Workshop.  Last week, I received some of the best news of my photographic career when I was formally invited to attend Missouri Photo Workshop – one of about 40 or so photographers from around the globe to be accepted. MPW.64 will take place September 23-29 in Troy, Missouri. Troy is a vibrant yet growing semi-rural/semi-suburban town located about an hour northwest of St. Louis.

I didn’t realize how competitive this workshop was when I originally applied – I just knew that I wanted to hone my visual storytelling skills in small-town America, and MPW looked like the perfect vehicle to do this.  My ultimate goal over the next few years will be to create a new coffee table photography book called, “Americana Lost: Chasing Dreams in Small-Town America.”  I’m hoping MPW.64 will provide some much-needed clarity.

"Americana Lost: Chasing Dreams in Small-Town America"

Widely considered to be the holy grail of photojournalism workshops and international in scope, the Missouri Photo Workshop has been proudly documenting small towns in Missouri with a camera since 1949 (it is the first and oldest documentary photojournalism workshop).

Our workshop faculty for the week will include some of America’s leading newspaper and magazine photographers and editors, including mentors from National Geographic Magazine, the Missouri School of Journalism and Pictures of the Year, International – just to name a few.

Trust me – the week I spend in Troy won’t be a cakewalk.  MPW.64 is not one of those cushy workshops where you get shuttled to some scenic part of town, and are lectured on composition and available light portraits.  These people are dead serious about photojournalism.

Heck, the workshop staff is the size of small army – with a base of operations that closely resembles a CNN media command center.  MPW even has its own band of reporters documenting the entire experience, culminating in a daily newsletter. This year’s HQ will be located in Troy’s city hall building.

The schedule will be vigorous and the advice hard hitting.  Essentially, each student has a week to find a compelling story to document.  Students are then given the opportunity to pitch their story ideas to faculty for approval.  Many of the story ideas either get turned down or are thrown back for further development.

If things aren’t challenging enough, you can only shoot a max of 400 images the entire week (JPEG not RAW), with no deleting or self-editing.  Yes, about the only thing RAW this week will be the photographers themselves.

Tracking down “the right” story (not just A story) will require a tremendous amount of in-the-field research and “pound the pavement” persistence.  As a matter of fact, I’ve already learned my first important lesson and it hasn’t even started.

Once I found out that I was accepted, I immediately started conducting intensive research into Troy.  I’ve done extensive Google searches, studied local newspapers, scoured through Troy-specific Topix forums – and have even gone so far as reaching out via email to some of Troy’s more prominent movers and shakers.

I wrote to some of these movers and shakers hoping that they might help point me in the right direction with a story lead or two that could be developed when I arrive.  Who better to ask than the very people that are considered the heartbeat of this community?

I basically asked them the following questions:

Do you know someone, who through extraordinary service and sacrifice exemplifies the best of Troy?

Do you know someone who is tackling personal hardship, tragedy or adversity head-on with a positive attitude and a strong sense of courage and bravery?

Do you know someone from Troy who has an extraordinary talent that needs to be recognized?

Do you know anyone from Troy who is directly impacted by today’s most pressing social issues (lack of healthcare, unemployment, injured war vet, etc.)?

Are there any residents, whose life story is about redemption, new beginnings, chasing a dream, facing a personal demon, finding hope, seeking justice, being different, etc.?

Are there any “larger than life” Troy residents whom you’d consider to be very unique, quirky or eccentric?

Vegas Baby! (Freemont Street)

Are there any stories in Troy that speak to small-town Americana or Americana lost?

Lastly, are there any mysteries, legends, folklore or bizarre happenings in Troy that might be interesting to document?

Surprisingly, I did get one response from a Troy Chamber of Commerce executive who eagerly indicated that she might have some great story suggestions.  We’ll see where that one goes.

But seriously, who am I fooling?  There are no shortcuts to finding “the right story” – especially one that is emotionally and photographically worthwhile.  Although advance research can help, and maybe I’ll land a solid name or two – the real magic happens when you knock on doors, pick up phones, shake hands and speak to people face-to-face.

Photojournalism is all about building trust and establishing intimacy. You just can’t do this when you’re 700 miles away tapping on a computer keyboard.  If I’m going to be successful, I need to dive into the trenches head first. Photojournalism is a war best won on the ground, not through a blind air assault.

I’m honored to have been selected for this prestigious workshop, and will do my best to live up to the high standards originally set by Clifton C. Edom, founder of Missouri Photo Workshop. His credo was all about showing truth with your camera while exhibiting the highest degree of personal integrity.

Essence of Childhood - 2012

Adding to his credo, my personal philosophy will be to showcase my photographic subjects with grace, dignity, sensitivity and true-to-life character. Everyone has a story to tell – and I hope to do this in an honorable way that will make the residents of Troy proud. Coming from a small Pennsylvania town myself, I know all too well how important these attributes are – especially in this age of media sensationalism, exploitation and altered reality.

I have read and enthusiastically absorbed many of the excellent stories that have been created by talented students from past MPW workshops, and quite a few are vignettes about people that own businesses, such as farmers, shop keepers, etc. There is a lot to be said about these important stories – and they are all part of the small-town narrative.

But I want to push myself creatively (and spiritually) by finding a story that inspires us all to become better people. I know this is a lot to ask of any one story, but there are heroes all around us. The term “hero” is a very subjective thing – and means different things to different people for numerous reasons. For some, the single mom “holding it all together” may be their hero; for others it may be the passionate piano tuner who has elevated his or her craft to an art form.  MPW challenges us to find our own hero and to compassionately tell their story—as seen through their eyes, not our own.

I’m not quite sure what my final story will look like, but hopefully I’ll know it when I see it.  For now, I’m just strapping myself into the MPW roller coaster, checking my expectations and pride at the door, and seeing where this soulful journey takes me.

Mind you, this is not just an ordinary workshop about photojournalism, but a life-changing experience that I predict will forever shape who I am as a photographer and human being.  Sure, attending MPW may help open doors and is a wonderful feather in the cap for the budding photojournalist.  But I sense that MPW is much bigger than this.

Like the old adage, some experiences are so precious in themselves as to prove that not everything is a means to some end other than itself.  I sense that MPW is just such an experience.

More details on Missouri Photo Workshop can be found at:  http://www.mophotoworkshop.org/

Still Photography: Telling Better Stories Through Cinematography

Posted in Photography with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 7, 2012 by spiritualized67
Jerome Arizona

Jerome Arizona

It’s 2:45am, and you’ve finally mustered up enough courage to visit that 24-hour main street diner off the interstate. The weather outside is dark and raw, and it’s been drizzling all night.

The lobby entrance sign tells you to seat yourself, so you find a cozy spot slightly out of the way.

An attractive older waitress is sifting through order slips behind the counter and a tired looking truck driver sips on his coffee with slow purpose, clutching his warm cup of java like an old friend.

The smell of slightly burnt fried food and lime-scented floor cleaner hangs in the air like dense morning fog.  The fluorescent lights hum overhead, only broken up by the faint sound of silverware clanking in the kitchen.

Playing out like a scene from a Hopper painting, you quietly unzip your photo bag, take out your camera and place it to your eye. You’ve been there for a while now and seem to be doing a pretty good job of blending in.

You work quickly to compose and focus the scene the way you envisioned when you were lying in bed the night before, then fire off a few frames in quick succession. Feeling good about what you think you’ve captured, you pack up your gear, pay your bill and head home for a few hours of shuteye.

After reviewing your images the next day, you find that the majority did not come anywhere close to capturing the mood that you were feeling at the time.

The scene presented itself gloriously at your feet, yet all you walked away with were mere snapshots.  Clearly there was a story to be told with your camera, or so you thought – and all you managed to get was a flat documentation of the scene, rather than a soulful and dramatic interpretation.

Frustrated, you wonder what you could have done differently to make your photographs more emotionally compelling and closer to your original storytelling vision.

Nags Head Nightscape

Nags Head Nightscape

What’s The Secret?

I was a movie junkie growing up (especially the classic movies) – so I’d like to believe that a lot of my subconscious visual instinct came from having absorbed all those wonderful images, even though I probably didn’t know what I was assimilating at the time.  So it’s only fitting that I attempt to explore the synergistic intersection of still photography and cinematography.

So what exactly is the secret to telling compelling stories in a single image? Before I can answer this often elusive question, it’s important to have a better understanding of cinematography and how it specifically relates to still photography.

For many people, cinematography is viewed as “the art and science of motion-picture filmmaking.”  Almost always, it is interpreted within the context of the moving image.

Needless to say, filmmakers have the luxury of incorporating many techniques that go way beyond the means of the average still photographer – from sound effects and dramatic dialogue to scene transitions and period wardrobe.

When it comes to telling effective stories, cinematographers are relying on multiple images and other supporting effects stitched together in a creative way to help advance plot and ultimately tell the story.  And although the individual elements can be crafted to elicit a certain emotional response (whether through literal, metaphoric or symbolic meaning) – it is primarily the sum of the parts that drives the overall story.

The beauty and drama of any given shot is not just a matter of applying rules of composition.  Rather, it’s about the union of technical elements, compositional choices, and narrative context – all working together in harmony to convey meaning.

At the heart of this philosophy is the still image. Like a painting, static images present inherent storytelling opportunities in and of themselves.  When all the elements come together, the still image has the power to emotionally move viewers beyond the supporting elements contained within the four edges of the frame – potentially transforming an ordinary scene into an extraordinary one.

White Pocket Wilderness (Arizona)

White Pocket Wilderness (Arizona)

The primary difference between pure cinematography and still photography is that the latter needs to tell a story in only one image.  One exception to this thinking would be the multi-image photo essay – which uses conventions like establishing shots, gesture shots and closing shots to tell a broader story based on the cumulative effect of all the images working together in symphony.

Can a Single Image Tell a Story?

One of the most powerful film techniques used by cinematographers is called an “emblematic shot.”  These shots have the power to communicate complex ideas, with compositions that reveal special connections between visual elements contained within the frame.

Emblematic shots can “tell a story” with a single image, often conveying ideas that are generally greater than the sum of their parts.   You can take an emblematic shot out of a film,  show it to someone who is unfamiliar with the story, and still have him or her recognize what the film is all about.

Translated into a still photography context, this is most closely associated with the concept of a universal theme.  For example, we may see a truck driver sitting in the corner booth at the diner sipping on his coffee.  But what we’re really looking at is a metaphor for loneliness, solitude – or maybe living the hard life.

But make no mistake, we simply can’t just aim the camera in a certain direction – and hope that our viewers will understand the story we’re all trying to tell.  As still photography cinematographers, we must make certain creative decisions that will ultimately propel our story forward – giving our images greater meaning and impact.

From our choice of lens and vantage point, to the decisions we make from a framing perspective – everything we include or exclude from our viewfinder will impact the final image.

Creepy Abandoned Coal Mining Store (WV)

Creepy Abandoned Coal Mining Store (WV)

In reality, there never truly is a perfect image, only a continuum of perfection.  And while our image in its current form may move viewers to some degree, the question we must always ask ourselves is whether or not we did everything within our power to maximize the inherent storytelling potential that was present when we chose to press the shutter.

I could write an entire book if I really wanted to review all the questions we should probably ask ourselves as still photography cinematographers when making creative decisions – from observing where the light is falling and how this affects mood, to analyzing the lines, colors or tones in the scene to determine what, if any, emotional context they might suggest.

The whole point of this article is not to review every conceivable decision that should be considered when framing up a scene.  For a more detailed explanation of these all-encompassing concepts, I suggest reading books from accomplished photographers such as David duChemin or Michael Freeman.  Rather, this article is meant to introduce you to some of the more common conventions employed by moving image cinematographers in order to help drive the narrative and tell the story.

It is up to us as still photography cinematographers to apply these concepts to our own craft, using them to our advantage where and when possible. Each of these tools, when used correctly and often, has the power to help transform our images. But before we can become master storytellers, we must first understand the emotional implication of each, so that we can help draw viewers into our images in more meaningful ways. It is here, that intent meets vision.

Cinematic Techniques:

Wide-Angle Shots:  With inherently deep depth of field and an expansive field of view, wide angle shots are ideally suited to landscape-oriented vista shots – or when creating photos essays, establishing shots.  Unlike shots that utilize shallow depth of field, wide angle shots enable subjects in the foreground, middle ground and background to be rendered in focus simultaneously.  From a storyteller’s perspective, the still photographer can create layers of drama by capturing multiple subjects in different planes reacting to one event happening in real time.  A powerful background or setting can add even more narrative context.

Being able to capture a dramatic layered moment requires keen observation, ample preparation and a commitment to capturing a key moment at the peak of activity.  National Geographic photographers are masters at creating layered moments at a decisive moment.

Photography is essentially a two dimensional interpretation of a three dimensional world.  That being said, seasoned photographers using wide angle lenses often place subjects low and close in the foreground to not only help establish prominence, but to add much needed dimensionality. Done correctly, prominent foreground subjects rendered through a wide angle lens can also help anchor a scene while providing a potential leading line entry point into and around the image.

Telephoto Shots:  Telephoto lenses compress space, making objects appear to be on the same plane. Shallow DOF also allows us to throw certain parts of a scene out of focus.  By extracting a subject from its background, the still photographer can focus more attention on the subject while de-emphasizing the overall setting.  This “bokeh” effect can add drama, while at the same time, eliminating distracting clutter that doesn’t serve the narrative of the story.

Location:  Given that film (or digital photography for that matter) is a visual medium, location offers huge storytelling potential.  It can heighten drama, suggest parallel and contrasts, and help define our subjects. From a photographic perspective, this helps show us a subject’s environment, giving us additional insight into their world, essence and character.  In environmental portraiture for example, location plays a huge role in helping provide subject personality context.

In a narrower sense, location is the backdrop we choose to use. I’m not talking about choosing a certain town in which to photograph, but rather, a unique street corner captured from a specific vantage point or angle using a particular lens (at a certain moment).  Photography is really just an extraction constrained within the four walls that we call a frame.  As still photography cinematographers, it is up to us to seek out a stage to use for our own theatrical production.  But even the best stage can be boring without actors and moments.

On the River Thames (London England)

On the River Thames (London England)

Props: Provides a dramatic way to express a character’s inner world.  In relation to still photography, it means showing a subject’s environment, which helps tell the story, provide context, and give insight into a subject’s personality. A cinematographer can exploit or select props to add a layer of meaning.  Similarly, wardrobe can add dramatic value and provide insight into a character.

Still photographers seeking an honest representation of reality have to walk the fine line between setting up and staging a scene that wasn’t necessarily there, versus simply taking advantage of found props – especially those that relate to our subject and their essence. It is up to us to find the right angle or backdrop that places these props into view, or to relocate our subjects if needed.

This doesn’t mean that placing a prop that was on a table into our subject’s hand should be entirely ruled out – and even these can reveal spontaneous moments when coupled with the right gesture. But when we create false realities by staging props into a genuinely real scene (that is supposedly unfolding in the moment), the image can come off as forced and contrived.

Of course, there are many photographers who thrive on creating these false realities – and we should never judge them (unless they are purposely misleading their viewers – for example, trying to pass off a doctored photojournalistic image).  Everyone has his or her own unique vision – whether it is grounded in reality, fantasy or somewhere in between.

High Angle Vantage Point:  As still photography cinematographers, we have the ability to make a statement based on our vantage point – whether high, low or eye level.  Often, shooting from a higher angle makes our subjects look defeated, weak, passive, powerless, psychologically vulnerable, small, lacking in confidence or distraught.  But like anything else, these interpretations are not absolute, and can be subverted based on the context in which they are presented.  Often a minor adjustment of the camera above or below eye level is sufficient to make an impression in the mind of our viewers.

In one example that has become a rather well-entrenched cliché, homeless people are often photographed from above, magnifying their destitute status.  Of course, we hold the power to change this paradigm by shooting from an angle that gives our subjects grace.  In this same example, had we shot looking up, our subjects would have appeared more confident and proud – almost as if to say…”even in the midst of personal hardship, I will continue to maintain my dignity.”  While they may not be particularly proud of whom they’ve become or their circumstances, they retain a strong and resolute sense of self that is often larger than their circumstances.

Low Angle Shots:  Conveys confidence, power and control.  This angle makes the subject appear larger than life.  It translates power to the subject, making it appear to dominate the objects beneath it.  A common rule of thumb when shooting children is to shoot at eye level, because it imparts equal respect.  Likewise, we can shoot children from a slightly lower angle, which might suggest that “children are our last great hope and we look up to them.”  Again, the angle we choose to use (whether high, low or eye level) and the suggested meaning for each depends on the subject, and the context in which it is presented.

Discovery

Discovery

In another example, shooting a creepy old house from a lower angle could suggest something ominous. As still photography cinematographers, we can use these angle decisions to help add subtle meaning to our images – providing one more layer of impact.

Of course, not all high or low angle shots have to convey emotional meaning. Sometimes it’s just about getting our camera in a different place, or to paraphrase Joe McNally, “it’s about presenting a slightly different view.”  Whether we’re shooting from the POV of a bird or a bug, shifting our vantage point can present a fresh perspective and help us see through someone else’s (or something else’s) eyes.

Photographing Through Objects:  Shooting through objects can help create layers of drama, both figuratively and literally.  For example, shooting through a diffused window pane may add historical significance. The distorted view created by a window may externalize the subject’s own distorted view of reality.

In another example, shooting through a sheer curtain can create a sense of mystery about our subject (while further reinforcing and externalizing our own view of them). In a related concept, shooting our subjects in a reflection can impart an almost dream-like meaning – whether about identity, memory, tangibility, or even passing time.  Like any technique, we always run the risk that our images will be viewed as a cliché if we don’t have a valid reason for using them beyond the novelty.

As still photography cinematographers, we must have a clear vision of the story we are trying to tell, using our creative and technical decisions to communicate this understanding with intent. Photographing through objects is an effective way to do this, because it allows us to utilize metaphoric or symbolic meaning to further reinforce personality traits.

Leaving for Afghanistan

Leaving for Afghanistan

Extreme Close Up Shot: This type of shot is frequently used in photo essays to tell the smaller stories within the context of a larger narrative. Using an extreme close up to frame a small object or detail of a character instantly generates the expectation that what is being shown is important and meaningful to the narrative in some way. Examples might include only showing eyes, hands, feet – or smaller props that directly relate to our subject and their lives (or careers).

For example, if we are photographing a story about a coal miner, showing a close up of dirty worn hands could speak to the hard and unforgiving nature of their jobs – while at the same time, giving us insight into their personality – especially if other images in the series reinforce this.  Taking this idea one step further, the same hands holding a cigarette that is burnt down to the stub could imply even more metaphoric meaning – possibly drawing a parallel between the person’s life and toxic conditions in which they are exposed to on a daily basis.  If the cigarette is all burnt up, what are we to think of our subject?

Close Up Shots: In cinematography, there are many variations on the close up shot theme, including: extreme close up (which I explained above), close up shots and medium close up shots.  As still photography cinematographers, all we really need to understand is that the closeness and intimacy of a close up lets our viewers connect with a subject (and story) on an emotional level. When used on a human subject, its main purpose is to let our viewers see nuances of behavior and emotion.  Depth of field, focal length, lighting and composition should be carefully manipulated to create an effect of intimacy.

The closer we get to a character (for example, showing facial expressions), the more sympathy we are likely to feel.  This is because the close up gives us physical proximity usually reserved for those allowed within a subject’s intimate space.  The close up can also be used to evoke fear or revulsion when our viewers are forced to be in close proximity to a character implied to be an antagonist.  For example, if we are taking a picture of a polarizing or controversial figure, getting in close can further magnify our feelings about them.  Ultimately, close ups draw attention to an object by making them larger than life, often presenting them in ways that are different than we typically see them.

Forsyth Park (Savannah Georgia)

Forsyth Park (Savannah Georgia)

Medium-Type Shot: Whether medium shots or medium longs shots, this focal range will typically show one or more subjects from the knee or waist up, while still including some of the surrounding area. Medium-type shots can convey the dynamics of a relationship through subject placement in the composition, in addition to body language. Medium shots are effective for showcasing subjects and locations almost equally, conveying a lot of information about their personality quirks, hobbies, and careers to our viewers – which makes them very effective for environmental-type portraits.

Long Shot: Long shots and extreme long shots typically include subjects in their entirety in the frame, along with a large portion of the surrounding area. The wide field of view of long shots also makes them ideal for emblematic or universally themed shots (shots that convey complex, associative ideas by the arrangement of visual elements in the frame).  In addition to conveying relationships between subjects and their surrounding area, the long shot can be used to suggest narrative and thematic dynamics between characters, through their placement and relative scale in the composition.

Over the Shoulder Shot: Although this is a convention that is frequently used in movies, an over the should shot can be quite effective in still photography, especially when you are attempting to document the exchange between two or more subjects that are connected in some fashion. In this shot, the camera is almost always placed according to the 180 rule (the imaginary line between the shoulders of the person you’re photographing past, and the character that is looking in your direction).

Over-the-shoulder shots can be used to suggest tension, intimacy, desire, hatred, imprisonment or even conspiracy.  It depends on the relationship dynamics of your subjects, the implied story, and the backdrop/staging.

Canted Shot: In this type of shot, the camera is tilted laterally, so that the horizon is not level and vertical lines run diagonally.  The resulting compositions can create spacial imbalance or disorientation which can convey a sense of dramatic tension, psychological instability or drug-induced psychosis.

When the basic rules of orientation are broken, they draw attention to themselves. Consequently, when they are used, they need to mean something.  For example, a person filmed upside down could be a metaphor for inner turmoil. A disorienting shot intentionally disorients.

Of course, not all still photography shots lend themselves to a canted view. In landscape photography for example, a canted shot could mean that you did a poor job of leveling the horizon.  But in the right context (such as a dark foggy forest), a canted shot could create a sense of fear or foreboding. Again, the decisions you make should revolve around strengthening your story.

Other Cinematic Shots:  There are many other shots used by cinematographers that I won’t get into for this article. Some examples include: abstract shots, macro shots, zoom shots, pan shots, group shots, two shots, subjective shots, tilt shots, dolly shots, tracking shots, steadicam shots, crane shots and sequence shots.  Many of these shots may only be applicable to moving image cinematography.

Lighting: In cinematography and still photography, light and dark function as visual sign posts.  What’s dramatically or emotionally important is lit, what’s unimportant is left in darkness.  Often, cinematographers will utilize something called Rembrandt lighting, which serves to intentionally create strong contrasts of light and dark.

High contrast lighting (or chiaroscuro, as it is often called) was developed by the Italian painter Caravaggio.  This type of lighting often appears to come from spotlights shining on the action, while other areas disappear into unlit shadows.  This technique is said to achieve a heightened dramatization or greater truth-to-life.  It is often reserved for pivotal scenes expressing key philosophical questions of good and evil, life and death.

Unless we are working with external or mobile lighting sources, still photographers are constrained by the natural light inherent at the scene. While keeping in mind our desired backdrop or stage, we can always move our subjects into the best light.  For example, placing our subjects near north facing windows has always been a favorite of natural light portrait photographers.  Or we can move our subjects into stronger light, rendering one half of their face into darkness for added dramatic effect.

Firefly Lounge

Firefly Lounge

Again, I won’t go into too much detail about light – as there are entire books written on this subject.  But given that photography is essentially “writing with light,” you would be well served to learn as much as you can about how light can affect mood, or change the essence of our subjects. Through a better understanding of the qualities of light (such as intensity, quality, direction, balance, etc.), we will be better equipped to take advantage of this light when we see it, using it to our advantage.

It goes without saying that light is at the top of the list when it comes to helping propel a story, define a moment, or suggest a mood that creates a compelling narrative in a single image.  Painters understood this.

Guideline of Thirds:  Yes, rule of thirds is an essential part of photography 101 – so I won’t get into this too much. Assuming you know what this is, and as it relates only to cinematic portraits, the eyes should be positioned at the intersection sweet spot: the top left sweet spot (with left eye) if they are looking towards the right side of the frame, the top right sweet spot (with right eye) if they are looking towards the left of the frame.  Of course, guideline of thirds can be applied to any subject.

For the sake of this article, I will call it a guideline, because it is not a hard and fast rule under all circumstances.  Somewhat related to this concept is the golden ratio (the divine proportion), although I’ll let you look that one up (sidebar: the golden ratio is frequently found in nature and was used by classic painters throughout the ages).

Hitchcock’s Rule:  In cinematography terms, the size of an object in the frame should be directly related to its importance in the story at the moment.  A character’s relative strength and weakness can be established by the use of size.  In still photography terms, this basically is in line with our ideas around prominence and contrast.  In other words, we make an object more prominent to make it more important.

This can also work in reverse.  For example, we can show a tiny man on a camel riding though a massive desert, and still be able to make them the most important part of our scene (because of the contrast between large and small, and proper use of negative and positive space).  While this may not be the classic definition of the Hitchcock Rule, it does underscore how certain constructs like opposites, colors, uniqueness, breaking a pattern, negative space, etc. can all be used to establish subject importance.

Shapes:  Shapes have certain storytelling connotations and may help contribute to a mood. This is just something to keep in mind when framing up our images (including shooting a frame within a frame, for example), or choosing what elements to include or exclude. Shapes can also be suggested through composition, even if they are only implied (for example, photographing a group of people who are positioned to form a triangle).

Rounded shapes typically convey: sensual/feminine (curves), community, integrity, perfection, indirect, passive, romantic, pertaining to nature, soft, organic, childlike, safe, flexible, celestial and the eternal whole (has no beginning or end).  Square shapes (including rectangles) convey: familiar, stable, trusted, direct, industrial, ordered, linear, unnatural, adult and rigid.  Rectangles are balanced shapes and are manmade.  They may represent logic, civilization, control and modern.

Sometimes the rectangle is used to represent a portal to another world. Triangles can convey energy, conflict, aggressive, dynamic (and stable when they are on their base).  A triangle might refer to harmony of family or even conjure up a religious connotation such as Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Spirals suggest: fertility, birth, death, evolution, expansion, transformation and natural creativity. Crosses signify spirituality and healing.  Lines:  thick lines project strength and thin lines project frailty.

In general, organic shapes are associated with nature, and geometric shapes with man.  Each has their own connotation.  Although in and of themselves shapes may not tell a story, they all contribute to the layered impact of our still image – potentially adding one more subtle element into our narrative.  Master photographers like Bresson understood how to leverage the geometry in any given scene to makes their single images more compelling.

WV Farm

WV Farm

Color:  Like shapes, each color has its own connotation, as do color combinations. For example, red may mean danger, stop, negative, excitement or hot; black may mean serious, heavy, death; white may mean pure, clean, honest; green may mean growth, positive, organic, go, comforting or sick; dark blue may mean stable, calming, trustworthy, mature; light blue may mean youthful, masculine, cool; gray may mean integrity, neutral, cool, mature.

Brown may mean wholesome, organic, unpretentious; yellow may mean emotional, positive, caution or sunny; gold may mean conservative, stable, elegant; orange may mean emotional, positive, organic; purple may mean contemporary, royal; pink may mean youthful, feminine, warm; pastels may mean soft, feminine, sensitive; metallic may mean elegant, lasting, wealthy or mechanical/man-made.

Understanding your subject and the story you are trying to tell can give you clues into color choice. For example, if you are photographing a race car driver who has cheated death on numerous occasions, finding a backdrop that includes the color red could help connote danger or excitement (or even a subliminal connection to suggest blood).

Yes, color does matter. But just as color can help add a layer of understanding, it can also take away from our story if it does not suggest meaning, or is so dominant as to overpower our subject.  This is one reason why black and white photos can be so effective, because they strip away color meaning, leaving behind other elements to help carry the story.

Balanced/Unbalanced Composition:  Every object included in the frame carries with it a visual weight.  The size, color, brightness, shape, and placement of an object can affect the viewer’s perception of its relative visual weight – giving some compositions a balanced look, and others an unbalanced look.  Balanced compositions project order, uniformity and predetermination.  Unbalanced compositions are often associated with chaos, uneasiness and tension.

Which approach you take should be based on the narrative context in which they are being presented. A balanced frame is one in which there is an intentional symmetry.  Mass, color, size, shape and complexity, and implied direction are manipulated to create this effect.

Depth:  As I referenced under wide angle shots, creating depth to overcome the inherent two-dimensionality of the frame is one of the most common compositional strategies used to produce a dynamic frame and a believable three-dimensional space.

Manteo, NC

Manteo, NC

Focal Points:  By carefully selecting what is included and excluded from the frame, what is in focus and out of focus, what is lit and unlit, and what visually dominates the frame, you can create compositions that won’t be misunderstood by your viewers.

Lens Selection:  Field of view is dictated by your choice of lens, each with its own corresponding focal length.  Lens choice ultimately dictates how much space can be included in the frame. It also speaks directly to the effect you are hoping to achieve as it relates to your story.  Each lens has its own behaviors and characteristics – typically relating to field of view, depth of field, perspective, light handling ability, tonal contrast, etc.

The cinematic shot-type references mentioned in this article (e.g. close up shot, medium shot, wide angle shot, etc.), are generally a function of our choice of lens and their inherent capabilities and optical properties.

The Final Chapter

Imagine for a second that it’s 2:45am and you’re back at the 24-hour diner.  You select a wide angle lens and position yourself behind an old jukebox.  You boost ISO, because you know that a little noise will add grain to your image, giving the scene some nostalgic character.  The higher ISO will also give you the shutter speed you need to keep the focus crisp.  You use your table as a tripod in Live View mode, because it won’t be so obvious that you’re taking pictures.

You frame up the image with the truck driver in the mid-foreground, and the waitress in the background, directly in front of the food window that leads into the kitchen.  The jukebox anchors the scene in the immediate foreground, leading the eye further into the image – while providing dimensionality and a timeless feel.

Your choice of focal length and wide field of view allows you to capture additional location details that further reinforces the context of the story – from the homemade pies sitting on the counter to the neon sign hanging on the wall.   You shift your vantage point ever so slightly to eliminate some of the distracting elements on the edge of the frame that don’t add to your narrative.

The jukebox, truck driver and waitress all form an invisible triangle in your image, further establishing a connection and relationship between the three – and your subjects are balanced nicely in the image, set against the striking background.  You work to compose key parts of your scene at the rule of thirds intersection points.

Because the truck driver is more prominently featured in the framing, you are essentially placing higher importance on them to carry your story as the primary point of interest.  A strong spotlight from the hanging booth light adds to the drama of the scene, placing part of the truck driver’s face into strong shadows.  The smoke from the burnt food further defines the light, while helping to diffuse the overall scene.  The diffused light creates an almost dream-like atmosphere, adding one more layer to your story.

Ready for the decisive moment, you wait for the truck driver to slowly place the coffee cup to his lips, oblivious to your presence.  The truck driver has a contemplative look on his face, further accentuated by the hard lines around his eyes and on his forehead.  The waitress is sifting through the order slips in the background, and you can vaguely make out the small outline of a cook working in the kitchen behind the food order window.

Everything about the scene has come together nicely, and you feel like you’re making the right compositional and technical decisions in order to turn your storyteller’s vision into a reality.  The next day when you review your images, you feel a strong sense of accomplishment knowing that your photographs will resonate among your viewers – and that the story you envisioned has been clearly communicated with intent.  You can now proudly call yourself a still photography cinematographer.

In the End, What Really Matters?

Everything in the frame matters – and will be interpreted by our viewers as being there for a specific reason that is directly related to the story we are trying to tell.  The location, prominence and inclusion of anything in the frame will ultimately impact how our viewers understand its importance as it relates to our story.  How we arrange these elements conveys meaning – as does the context in which they are presented.

Before you can decide where to shoot and from which angle, you need to first understand what should dominate your composition, what should be included or excluded, and what meaning will be conveyed by your photograph beyond what is contained in the frame.

Girl with the Frog Hat

Girl with the Frog Hat

Before we make any creative or technical decisions, we must seek to understand the storytelling implications of each technique at our disposal – as well as each visible element contained within our scene, whether human or inanimate. By identifying the core themes and ideas that are at the heart of our story, and doing so in a way the interjects our own interpretation, perspective and personality (which we can call personal vision) – we increase the likelihood that viewers will connect with our image.  When we can do this, it is said that we are able to compose with intent.

Every decision we make and throw behind our composition should be designed to support our core storytelling idea.  And although technique is important, it is more imperative to make the technique work for our story – otherwise it’s just a lesson in technical execution, and nothing more.

Painters can envision and project anything they want onto a blank canvas. And moving image cinematographers can stitch together multiple images to tell their story.  As still photography cinematographers, all we have is what the scene affords us and our patience – and we must make the most of them if we hope to have any success in telling our story in a single image.  Through our choice of lens, vantage point, angle, perspective, background, framing, composition, design, light, instinct and moments, we hold the storyteller’s pen in our hands.

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Reference Footnote: Some content and terminology has been referenced from “Cinematic Storytelling” by Jennifer Van Sijll and “the filmmaker’s eye” by Gustavo Mercado.  The idea behind “layers of impact” comes from David duChemin.  All ideas translated into a still-photography context are my own.

The Ugly Truth About Photography

Posted in Photography with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2012 by spiritualized67

The Ugly Truth About Photography

Not only did I swim competitively while I was growing up, I was the “stereotypical” middle child, constantly fighting for mom and dad’s attention. So I’d like to think that I know a thing or two about competition. As I’ve gotten older (and hopefully wiser), I’ve learned how to channel this competitive spirit inward – pushing myself artistically and technically if for no other reason than personal self-expression and self-actualization. Not to sound like an old cliche, I have nobody to compete with but myself – and any fire that burns is directed internally as I seek to become the master of my own photographic domain.

But as a keen observer of human behavior, I’ve also seen the uglier side of photography rear its ugly head on more than one occasion. Undoubtedly, photography can (and should) be a highly contemplative and introspective solo endeavor, best enjoyed on our own as we seek to give a voice to our inner vision while bonding with nature. But make no mistake, there’s also a strong social component to photography. These social interactions typically occur when we’re perusing online forums, attending photo events or club gatherings, or meeting up with fellow photographers in the field.

Unless you’ve locked yourself in a darkroom inhaling the pungent fumes of denial, chances are pretty high that you’ve experienced some form of this ego-driven competition. While ultimately, photography comes down to being an individual sport for most of us, it can be a highly competitive avocation at times – with rivalry often bubbling underneath the calm surface of social pleasantry. Here’s how…

Photographers are Competitive About Their Equipment: My camera is better than yours! Having started out on a Canon AE-1 SLR film camera, I can unequivocally say that both Canon and Nikon make stellar cameras and glass (as do other manufacturers like Sony, Leica, etc.). And truth be told, we all know that what’s behind the camera is infinitely more important than the tool itself. But that doesn’t stop us from comparing our equipment to others. Of course, I am reminded of a photographic buddy who spent years shooting with a low-end consumer Nikon D40, producing brilliant compositions that far exceeded the technology that he was using. Similarly, we all know folks who own thousands of dollars in high-end equipment, yet consistently fail to produce images that transcend beyond the mere snapshot. Of course, these are the same people who won’t hesitate to make us feel like lowly worms in an online photo forum just because we stated an opinion that insulted their technical prowess.

Just showing up with an expensive rig does not a photographer make. I think we’ll all agree that there’s something sexy and seductive about holding that shiny new machine in our hands, but the bottom line is that the camera is nothing more than a paintbrush, albeit an expensive one. As a matter of fact, I’m a strong advocate that you shouldn’t purchase any new equipment that doesn’t serve a creative purpose – whether it be for low light photography or high FPS sports. When the equipment becomes a status symbol, you’re in it for all the wrong reasons. That doesn’t mean you can’t drool over the latest and greatest gadgetry. Just don’t forget what’s important.

Photographers are Competitive About Their Images: Whether we’d like to admit it or not, we tend to judge other people’s photos – even the good ones. While we may not verbalize what we’re thinking, we’re secretly and subjectively breaking these images down in our heads, judging how we feel based on our own set of rules, experiences, expectations, values and pre-conceived notions. On the surface, this is not such a bad thing. After all, we’re thinking analyzing creatures – and we use our perception of the outside world to help make sense of our internal selves. But having spent many years actively contributing in photo forums, I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that photographers are an overly critical bunch – often dissecting photos to the point where “they’re missing the point.” In other words, just because a photo doesn’t perfectly follow the rule of thirds doesn’t mean that it’s not a compelling image, especially if it has emotional value. And there’s a lot to be said about personal style and paving your own creative path – even if others may not completely understand your vision. At the end of the day, you need to be aware of who is dishing out this advice in the first place. Is it that seasoned pro who takes joy in helping others, or is it that talentless pixel-peeper who has read a ton of books, but wouldn’t know good composition if it hit him or her squarely in the head?

It’s up to you to filter through the Internet static and seek out advice that will help you constructively grow as an artist – while tuning out self-deflating negativity. It’s up to you to learn from what you see or hear and take it for what it is without letting it get the better of you. Sure, looking at breathtaking images in flashy online galleries or polished coffee table books can make even the best of us feel like we’re creatively spinning our wheels or are invisible, fighting a losing battle to get noticed in a sea of endless talent. There’s always going to be people out there who are better or worse than us – and sometimes even untalented individuals can achieve prominence because they happened to be in the right place at the right time. And likewise, there are talented folk out there who wholeheartedly deserved the recognition they received – and maybe we just haven’t had our lucky break yet (and maybe never will). Like the lottery, some people will hit the numbers, but you’ve got to play to win, right? Now if you really want to get philosophical about it, the prize is handed to us every time we click the shutter. I’ll let you think about this one on your own.

Just remember that toxic emotions like jealousy and envy are destructive to the artistic spirit, and only serve to create resentment and bitterness. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished according to your own set of standards, and never stop aspiring to better your skills. Be in it for you and nobody else, and never make popularity or success your goal. As long as you’re happy about your images and find enrichment in the joy of just getting out and taking pictures, that’s all that really matters. If you can do this, everything else will fall in line and serendipity and success will seek you out.

Photographers are Competitive About Their Knowledge: Some photographers walk around with a sense of entitlement and even arrogance. This is the dude you meet on the backcountry trail who seeks to impress you with his deep knowledge on a wide wealth of photographic subjects. If you run into a person who throws out big phrases like “hyperfocal distance” or “the golden ratio” – it probably means that you are in the presence of such an individual – the self-professed guru. Yes, we get it – it has taken you many years to hone your skills and you feel like you’ve earned your stripes. But this doesn’t mean that you should talk down to people with less photographic knowledge than yourself, nor make unfounded assumptions. After all, you weren’t born with Ansel Adams skills right out of the womb. This is where the road diverges into two paths. Either you’re the kind of photographer who takes pride in “paying it forward” by being there as a coach, mentor or teacher, or you’re the kind of photographer who compensates for his own insecurity by projecting an image of superiority.

To paraphrase a wise Zen saying, “once one finds photographic success, one has to be careful not to get stuck in the achievement, which is confirmed with success and magnified by renown. In other words, behaving as if the artistic existence were a form of life that bore witness to its own vitality.” The moral of the story is, surround yourself by people who are humble about their own achievement and are willing to give back. We can learn a lot from these selfless artisans.

Photographers are Competitive About Their Locations: Some tripod holes (as they are affectionately known) can be downright venomous. Places like Schwabacher’s Landing in the Tetons, Arches National Park and Antelope Canyon immediately come to mind. Playing out like a scene from the movie “Highlander,” we wield our tripods like bloody battle swords, claiming that little piece of real estate that we’ve patiently staked out since 5am to be ours and ours alone. And when a van-load of “Intro to Whatever” photo workshop attendees descend upon our spot like enthusiastic schoolchildren on a field trip, we become angry and resentful (imagine how the casual tourist must feel about us). Of course, those who know better avoid these spots altogether and seek out places that are “off the beaten path.” Taking the road less traveled will not only help you uncover fresh new perspectives, you’ll be able to focus on your own creativity without the distraction that comes from photographing in a stressful location.

Photographers are Competitive About Recognition: Yes, these are the people who live to enter into photo contests – but more importantly, make it a point to let us know about every single award or recognition they’ve received since birth (or every gallery they are showing in). Again, we need to ask ourselves why we’re in it. Is it to win that blue ribbon, or is it to find enrichment in the artistic process of self expression or visual storytelling? Don’t get me wrong, I think there is a lot to be said about entering our prized landscape or candid portrait photo into a contest (or showing off our images at a show), and often the ego stroke that comes from winning the coveted gold medal can be highly inspirational. I would never want to discourage anyone from entering into a contest, because there are a lot of positives. But when the contest becomes more important than trying to create something meaningful through your art, then it might be time to shift your priorities. We should all toot our own horns and be proud of our accomplishments (if we don’t do it, who will?). And there’s nothing wrong with wearing this badge of distinction proudly on our sleeves. But don’t let it go to your head.

The Final Word…

Competition is a naturally occurring behavior between two or more rivals that can’t be avoided. It’s hardwired into our DNA from the time we were cavemen and had to fight against others for survival. As humans have evolved, our priorities have shifted, and we are now focused on attributes like fame, wealth, prestige and attention. Even today’s youth are more concerned about becoming affluent rock stars – and talent and the hard work ethic have all but taken a back seat to this narcissism. This is no doubt the result of the materialistic and hedonism-driven media and online culture we now find ourselves in (along with some lack of family values, family attention and parental guidance) – although this polarizing subject is a different blog posting altogether, so I won’t go there.

But competition can be a strong personal motivator, as it provides incentives for self improvement. This is especially true when the competitive focus is directed internally. In many ways, the ideas I have presented above are not exclusive to photography alone, but are inherent in any human activity or social interaction. As artists (whether in photography or in life), we should respect the competitive nature of what we do, while accepting the fact that sometimes these behaviors will rear their ugly head depending upon the situations we are thrust into. Competition will always be part of photography. But it should never define us.

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