A place for me to share my recent work, random musings on photography and reflect on my thoughts, experiences, ideas and revelations.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

September Desktop Wallpaper

Happy September!

Here is an image I made last September along Far Creek near Englehard, NC. The reflections of the old boat in the calm water provide a soothing image to get you through the last days of summer.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Critiques, reviews and evaluations

One of the things that often puzzles aspiring photographers of all skill levels, from absolute beginners to experienced amateurs and professionals, is the question of knowing how "good" their images are and how to make them better. As great as most experienced photographers are with sharing information about equipment, technique and locations, it is very difficult for photographers to get direct and specific feedback on improving their work.

I think one of the biggest challenges may be that we don’t know what kind of advice to ask for.

For a photographer trying to improve and learn, what to do? Maybe you could start posting to online forums, participate in a critique session, or attend a workshop. Each of these choices has its own benefits, and it’s possible to get a good foundation from a workshop. Even before that, though, you need to have an idea what it is you are trying to accomplish. What are you trying to learn, and who is best suited to help you do that?

Before taking a workshop or participating in a critique session, the place to start is to evaluate your own images. What kind of photographs do you take? Which ones do you like? Do they look like what you intended? Have you captured whatever it was that attracted you and caused you to press the shutter button? Why or why not? What do YOU like about your images, and what do YOU see in your images that need improvement? What matters most is YOUR vision, not someone else's interpretation of your image. Once a photographer has evaluated his own images and edited them based on his own intentions, only then can they be properly evaluated by others.

Eventually you will want to present your work to others, to get feedback, advice and suggestions. Don’t be afraid of this, but also be clear what kind of feedback you are looking for. This is important, as it helps you determine where and how to present your work.

The easiest and perhaps most common approach today is the online image critique. This can be as informal as posting images to Flickr or Facebook and getting comments. It can be an individual image critique forum such as the CNPA message boards, or you can submit to a formal review group or forum such as those offered by PPA and other organizations. When participating in online image critiques it is important to know who is going to be doing the critiques. Who are the critiquers, what are their qualifications? Are they professionals, beginners or someone in between? Are they people whose goals and vision are similar to your own, or are they just people looking for “atta-boys” and meaningless platitudes for their own work and who spend their time doing the same for others? Are they “pixel peepers” who will ignore an image with beautiful composition or wonderful light because maybe it isn’t critically sharp or optimally processed? Make sure you are showing your work to people whose opinions you would most want, and remember that a lot of people who post and comment to online forums are people whose hobby is commenting and posting to online forums. Photographers whose opinions you might value most might not spend a lot of time online because they are out taking photographs.

Group critiques are popular, as they tend to be “live,” with a known speaker or presenter who is recognized as having expertise in the field. While these types of sessions have some value, there are many factors that can limit their usefulness. Factors such as limited time, volume of images and technology issues such as a projector that does not properly show the images can limit the effectiveness of such sessions. Also, when someone is looking at images one at a time, the feedback often tends to be based on "rules" and often doesn’t involve input from the photographer. A good review will take the photographer’s intent into account - what are you trying to show and how well did you accomplish it?

Recently I have started to become more comfortable with my technical ability and have started to explore a more artistic approach to my photography. One of the areas that I wanted help with was the choices I make when editing my photographs (NOTE: by editing I am referring to the selection of images to keep or work on further. Processing refers to the optimization in software, or “developing” the images). I recently took a workshop with a photographer whose work and teaching style I admire, and as part of the process we arranged a follow-up meeting to review the images I made while on the workshop. It hasn’t happened as of the time of this article, but my goal is for us to review the work I did, evaluate the decisions I made about which images best suited my intent, and get his feedback on my post-processing. Yes, I’m paying extra for his time, but I feel that the extra effort to “complete the circle” will be worth it.

Another area I have been working on is doing my own printing. The way to get feedback on printing is to have someone actually look at your prints, so I have been working with a local master printer to get ongoing feedback to help me come up with better output. A trained eye is far better at seeing subtle differences that, once seen, make a huge difference in the impact of a print. Again, I’m paying for the advice, but I am getting a lot of efficiency by having exclusive access to this person, rather than trying to wedge in time during his studio hours or during a hectic workshop.

There are a number of things to consider and look for when deciding about learning opportunities. Decide what it is you are trying to accomplish. Establish goals and get specific feedback. Look at the activity on a forum or in a critique group and see what kind of images people are showing, what kind of feedback they are getting and whether you think it would work for you. Talk to a potential workshop leader or instructor to discuss your needs and to determine if and how he or she can help you. It might require more effort, it will probably cost some money and will definitely take time, but the payoff will be in terms of meaningful and specific feedback to help solve problems you have or answer your questions.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

It’s Not About “Best”

I was recently on a photography workshop with a well-known nature photographer and one of the participants asked the leader “between us, tell me – who are the 4 best photographers in the Unnamed Camera Club?” Just like in the old Dean Witter commercials all of the ears within listening distance perked up, and back came the answer, but not what the questioner was hoping for. He said – and I’m paraphrasing – that you can't evaluate "best." It’s not about “best.” Two different photographers, or for that matter a group of photographers, can each have completely different styles, use completely different equipment and present their final images in completely different ways. What distinguishes them may be content, technical excellence or emotional response. But that just makes them different, not better.

To carry this example a little further, think about other things you know personally. Do you like to read? Who is a better writer, Stephen King or Dan Brown? How about wine? Is Stag’s Leap a better wine than Kendall Jackson? Is Carlos Santana a better guitar player than Eric Clapton? Is Art Morris a better photographer than Joe McNally? Each choice is distinctively different, each choice is excellent in its own way, each choice is very, very good at what they do. But best? It’s not about best.

When evaluating anything, books, wine, photographs, we have to decide what it is that matters most to us. For photography do we want technical excellence? Define that. Does that mean excellent in-camera technique, excellent post processing, beautifully hand-crafted fine art prints on wonderful paper? Are we looking to go beyond technical excellence and explore images that convey feeling and emotion? What matters to each of us is very personal, and whether we are evaluating our own images or looking at others’ images, our preferences and opinions will dictate what we look for, how we feel, and how well those images stack up.

Many photographers are very subject-specific. Some photographers are very skilled at and perfectly satisfied making technically excellent documentary portraits of plants, animals and birds. Things like pose, head angle, direction and quality of light may be their focus. They may have an interest in the biological characteristics, or they may simply be adding to a collection. Whether they are shooting plants, animals, birds, waterfalls, sunrises at the beach or mountain ridges in the fog, it is the specifics of the subject that attract them. Those things are relatively easy to define, and on the surface the resulting photographs are relatively easy to evaluate. But even then, there will be differences in the images because each person brings their own set of interests, their own preferences and goals. Whether evaluating their own images or images of others, those preferences will influence what we look for, what we see and how we feel. Each set of photographs can be evaluated on the basis of many variables, and determining which of those variables is important is up to each individual photographer first.

Some photographers, whether satisfied with their level of technical knowledge or attracted by the desire to go beyond technical excellence start to think in terms of making images that convey thoughts, feelings and emotions. This does not mean burning incense and getting all new-agey – it just means thinking about what we see, understanding what it is that attracts us to a scene and making photographs that reflect the emotions and feelings we have about it. This gets into foreign territory for many photographers and it is easy to be scared off by the concept. Consequently, it can be very difficult to judge whether a photographer has created images that reflect their vision and whether they have achieved his or her goals.

While you are evaluating your own images, take time to look at other people’s photographs to build your own personal database of what you like and don’t like. Start with your own images but also expand your horizons to look at other people’s work. It doesn’t have to be work from famous people either, it can be anyone’s. Look at other images, whether prints in a gallery, online slideshows & galleries, books, magazines or presentations. Look at other images not to copy them, but to learn from them. Which images appeal to you and why? Just like listening to music or tasting wine, you need to have enough experience to understand what things are important to you. You need to have an opinion about what you like and what you look for, and you need to be able to recognize whether your work or someone else’s satisfies your preferences. If it doesn’t, you might still be able to appreciate it because even if it is not something you prefer you recognize that it is done very, very well.

We hear a lot about technical stuff. This is important but it is only the beginning. Learn the basics, but learn them so well that you don’t have to think about them. Learn how to use technique to achieve your goals. Learn to evaluate others’ images to determine how they made them and decide whether you like the results. When you attend a presentation of someone else’s images, participate in an image critique or see someone’s photographs online, learn to recognize characteristics. What makes them appeal to you (or not)? Look at other people’s images, and instead of asking them about aperture shutter speed, focal length, etc. look at the image and decide for yourself what was used, and whether or not you think it was effective. Think about what the photograph might look like with more or less depth of field, a longer or shorter shutter speed, or a different focal length lens. When you look at a photograph and think “wow, I wish I had taken that,” think about how it was done so that when you are in a situation to take a “wow” photograph you know how to do it. Remember that and add it to your personal database, so the next time you are photographing you can go into your personal database, think about all the variables, and have a better idea of what to do to reach your goals.

It’s important that we all try to improve our photography. We all want to get better at what we do. We want to learn and grow. But wondering or worrying about whether we are “better” than someone else or wanting to know who is “best” is an unnecessary distraction. Appreciate photographers and photographs for what they are and how they are different. This is supposed to be fun – enjoy it!

Monday, August 02, 2010

August Wallpaper Calendar

August 1st came and went, but August 2nd is a better day anyway. It's my son Scott's birthday - a national holiday in my family! For the calendar, a day late and a dollar short will have to do. I will happily refund your money if you are not completely satisfied!

I've got a number of essay ideas floating around in my head and will have at least one of them on paper for the upcoming deadline for the next CNPA newsletter. With any luck it will end up as a blog post. So stay tuned!

This month's photograph is from a visit last year to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was taken at Currituck Heritage Park near Corolla, North Carolina.