Why it’s not about the camera
Often you hear me say that good photography is not about the camera. Despite what we hear from camera makers, advertising and instructors who are sponsored by camera makers, creating great photos has little to do with what kind of camera you have.
Since photography was ‘invented’ in the 1820s every camera ever made is pretty much the same. They are all just boxes that can capture light. What makes them different is often small and specific. Take cars as an example. Cars are all pretty much the same, even a Tesla (sorry ElonJ). They all have wheels, most often 4. They have an engine that turns the wheels and they have a wheel so you can steer it and brakes so you can stop it. The difference is that some have leather seats and heated steering wheels. Some go faster and carry more people. Some are made to carry things and others are meant to take into the woods and drive over big holes and climb hills. But, all in all they are all just boxes with wheels and an engine and brakes. Cameras are the same.
All cameras are just boxes with holes in them. They have a hole that lets the light in and lets you control the volume of light with a thing called an aperture. They all have a shutter that lets you control the speed the light gets in the box. What makes the difference is the features. Some can take more pictures per second. Others can capture the ‘full’ picture and others have a bigger sensor and can make bigger, higher resolution pictures. Some have extra ‘gimmicks’ like eye tracking and HDR and other little features- mostly buttons and more menus. Despite a few features they are all pretty much the same- a box with a hole in it.
Throughout the history of photography, the best- most famous photographers-have used simple cameras. Cartier- Bresson, Adams, Meier, Muybridge, Lange, McCurry and Leibovitz- they all used simple cameras. Yes, many of the cameras of the day were simpler but all the famous photographers kept the same cameras for years. Years. They bought new lenses- new ways of seeing the world -but the way they got better- the way they created better and better work that made them even more famous was to shoot great visual stories. They got better at seeing great stories. They bought new lenses and got better at using lighting and shutter and aperture to tell those great stories. But the real way they became famous photographers was because they used the same camera- got to know it intimately and got really creative. They creatively used what their good friend; their camera could do to tell the story photographically- what the shutter or aperture, metering or lens could to tell the interesting story in an interesting way. They cared a lot about what they saw and a lot less about what the camera could do- even if it did have leather seats.
Nice shot! What kind of camera do you use!!
My favorite photography joke goes like this…. you go to someone’s house for dinner. You eat one of the most amazing meals of your life. When you are finished, you say “That was great! What kind of stove do you use?!”
Photography is like this. We often show a photo to someone and after they let out that ‘wow’ or ‘ohhhh,’ (the sound that we want to hear when show off our work) and they then say, “Nice shot! What kind of camera do you use?!”
We live in the age of the camera blindness. We didn’t get to this point easily. It took decades of brainwashing by camera makers. For years Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony, etc. etc. etc. have been telling us how smart cameras are. They have been telling us that having a camera with more buttons and more menus…more technology will make us better photographers. Nope. Not.
The truth? It’s not really about the camera. It goes like this…the first camera was just a room with a hole in the wall and the image of the outside world would be projected inside the room. There was no film so the image had to be traced. It was called a Camera Obscura.
Then someone though it would be a good idea to be able to focus the image so they put a lens in the hole in the wall. Then film was invented and the guy didn’t need to draw anymore. He could show the picture to his wife. Or the landlord, to explain why he was drawing on the wall.
Cameras changed from being rooms to boxes and then boxes you could move around on a tripod and then a guy named Eastman invented a camera called The Kodak Brownie. It was small and portable. It was easy to use. All people had to do was point and shoot. Easy, they advertised…
They sold millions. The camera was now something everyone could use!!
After the Brownie cameras got smaller and camera makers focused (pardon the pun) on putting new features in like autofocus and metering and then portrait and landscape modes and then depth of field preview, and a diopter and continuous mode so you could blow through a $20 roll of film in the time it takes push and release the button. And then they put a flash on top. Year after year since the 1980s camera companies have added more and more buttons. Then when they had no more space for buttons they made menus. Then cameras went digital and the problem got worse.
Short story: Camera makers have brainwashed us to think the key to great photography is a great camera. The truth is...the key to great photography is mostly about seeing a great photo opportunity and then having the right lens. What’s the right lens?
Really, all cameras are just boxes with holes in them. They all pretty much work the same way- they can adjust depth of field, metering and shutter speed. And…you can focus the lens. Like the first Camera Obscura- the lens is what made it work well.
Note to self: Photography is mostly about lenses…lenses and seeing.
See (another pun) as homo sapiens we are stuck with the way we see. We all see in video mode. We all see infinite depth of field. We all see the same focal length- around the same as a 35mm lens. About the same as your smartphone.
Different lenses allow us to take photos different than the way we see. So, if we all see from the same perspective- 35mm, as soon as we shoot with a different lens we create something different than we are used to seeing.
DIFFERENT = WOW!
Then…when we show the WOW! we hear…” Nice shot! What kind of camera do you use!”
Most of the WOWs we get when people see are pictures is because we created a photo different than the way the human eye sees. We use shallow depth of field, we blur the action, we make a silhouette of our husband on the beach in Cancun. Different. The other big WOW comes from the lenses we use. Change the lens. Change the perspective. Get the WOW!
Lenses are the cameras eyes. They allow the camera to see farther away and a lot closer than we can see. They can make a distant mountain look closer or allow us to see all the detail on a lady bug. The lens can be binoculars and it can be a magnifying glass.
So, if it’s all about lenses then why did I pay so much for my DSLR? you ask.
DSLR cameras are good. They have been the standard by how we measure a quality camera for a long time. They give us a lot of creative control. They allow us to meter different tones of light and dark. We can change the shutter speeds: blur and freeze. We can shoot one photo at a time or many; machine gun mode. They have a big sensor that can give us a big image. And…. we can put on different lenses.
So, the best camera is the one you have. Buy new lenses. Change the way you see.
PART 2 Smartphone Revolution…..
Brad’s Alberta barometer and cloudy crystal
(or how to keep your camera dry in Alberta)
Yes, its true. After years of roaming this province
shooting, climbing hiking, skiing, fishing,
running…(you get the exaggerated point) I know it
is true- we live in a tricky place for knowing what
the weather is going to be like. Note to self: We
have a lot of micro climates here, for example the
weather is different between Banff and Canmore,
Between Banff and Louise and Between Canmore
and Kananaskis. True Dat.
So, here is how I do it.
1. Look at 5-10 forecasts and take an average.
The Norwegians are best at it. Yup Really!
2. Look at several towns/areas around the areamostly
west and NW as that’s most of where
our weather comes from ie. Banff, Radium,
Jasper, Red Deer, Waterton, Kananaskis,
3. Look at a lot of webcams. Real time looking is
better than most forecasts. These are the
4. Look at satellite images and get used to how
to read them:
5. Learn a lot about what cloud shapes are
saying. Clouds tell us all we need to knowusually
days before. Study weather.
6. Learn from sailors. “Red sky in the morning, sailors
warning” Mariner expressions tell a lot.
For example, wind from the east usually means
and ‘up slope’ system. Upslope is a system
that swirls in from the coast from the SW. It
means big wet. Or if high cirrus clouds that
move in slow. Read: slow in, slow out. Or, if
the clouds look like camera lenses ‘lenticulars’
then it means bad weather in 24-36 hours.
Usually bad. Quick Toto into the basement,
kinda stuff. You get the point.
So, that’s how I do it. So, spend a lot of time
online and walking down your street looking up.
Happy shooting! Brad
It’s a matter of perspective
We photographers create a lot of photographs standing up. We tend to create a lot of our photography by holding the camera at eye level, shooting from a standing position. If you see any drawing or representation of a photographer, most often it is of them standing and shooting. Standing while creating a photo is the most popular position but it is also the most common perspective we see in photographs. This is good and this is not so good.
As full, upright walking Homo Sapien Sapiens we see and experience a lot of our world from a standing position. We travel through much of our world standing up. In the modern age we do a lot of sitting, for example driving, working and writing books about photography but as photographers we most often move. Moving requires standing. When we create photos we most often do it while standing. No matter what kind of photography it is almost always shot from a standing position: studio, landscape, weddings, journalism, street photography is most often all shot with the photographer standing up. (When was the last time you took a photo while sitting in a chair?) Standing allows us to move, it allows us to change views, it allows us to be a human tripod and stabilize the camera and it allows us to change perspective. Changing perspective is one of the most important things you can do to create WOW! photography.
The reason changing perspective is one of the most important ways to make your photography more interesting, to give it more WOW! is because, as humans, we see a lot of the world, everyday, from a standing position. This standing view ranges with our different heights, that of roughly around 4 feet to 7 feet high. If we create most of our photos from a standing position, with the camera horizontal, then this is the view we most often see and because we see it a lot it, well, it gets kind of boring.
Little kids, toddlers to be exact, have the cool perspective. They get to see the world while crawling close to the ground, or up high in mother’s arms or from standing a couple feet off the ground. They see the world from a perspective we, adults rarely do. If we gave a camera to a 2 year old we would find the photos interesting even if they weren’t great shots, all because of the fresh perspective.
Once, while teaching a workshop on the pebble beach in the postcard beautiful Positano, Italy I asked the students to try and capture a photo of the entire scene. I suggested they try and create what is called an establishing shot in filmmaking- a photo that shows the viewer the big picture- where they are in the story- in the world. We shot for the next hour, never more than a few hundred feet from each other. That evening, during the critique session in our hotel with some Italian wine we looked at everyone’s photos. I love doing these kind of critique sessions where we all created photos in the same place and never far from each other and each person has a totally different shot than anyone else in the group. At one point Shirley, a talented and keen photographer, put a photo up on the screen and everyone oooohed and awwwwed. It was a photo of the town of Positano taken from beach level. She took the shot lying on the beach with the camera on the sand. We were all stunned. It was a great photo. Although many of us had photos of the town from the same place of the same view, she was the only one who thought of doing it that way. We loved it because it was fresh. (Shirely photo)
When I prepare my portfolio for the nerve racking and humbling process of showing my work to editors and clients I always put the images that are the most ‘fresh’. Fresh is the photography industry term for images that are unique. Fresh is what editors or ‘ed’ looks for. Fresh gets our attention. Fresh gets us interested and keeps us turning the pages of a magazine. Fresh is why we love National Geographic. Fresh makes WOW! photos. The easiest and best way to make your photos fresh is take them from a different perspective.
Practice creating all of your photos from a position other than standing. Practice a variety of positions and angles.
-Lay down on the ground – worms eye OR toddler view
-Get up high looking down- birds eye view (but don’t fall off)
-look at down
-Put the camera against a wall
- Shoot vertical as well as horizontal
-Don’t be afraid to tilt the camera
photography is simple
Photography is simple. See something you want to take a picture of- take off the lens cap- point the camera and press the shutter. Voile! Thats all there is to it! Thats true if use and iPhone. Even better with an iPhone because you don't have to worry about taking the lens cap off. So why not use your iPhone for all the photos? iPhones don't give you control. They are essentially a point n' shoot camera. A DSLR or Mirrorless camera gives you options, it gives you choices, it gives you control. The reason us pros use DSLRs most of the time is because we can use a wide variety of lenses. We can get a big file so we can sell and have it up on a billboard. But, mostly importantly, we use them because they allow us to have a lot of creative control over light, over the shutter and the aperture and they allow us to create. Using a DSLR/ Mirrorless is like having blank canvas and lots of paints and brushes. That is why Program mode is paint by numbers photography. If you use Program mode you paid a lot of money for a point n' shoot camera. So, photography is simple. Learn how your camera sees the world. Figure out what story you are trying to tell and then use the way the camera sees to create great photos.
Isn’t it beautiful that we have come together for the purposes of co-creation- Abraham Hicks
We live in a beautiful world. We live in a world of amazing beauty and opportunities for creation. What is beauty asks the seeer? Beauty is in everything; it could be the texture of a dead leaf, the water streak on a dry stone, the wrinklers in a mans aging hands, patterns in the top of crème brulee, the oilstain on the parking lot, an old tool laying in a field, or even the dance of light on a smokey factory. The trick for a photographer is seeing the beauty in the sublime, seeing the beauty in the everything and getting it into the camera. One of the challenges of being a photographer is that we have to create from the real, from the tangible, from all the stuff of our world. Painters have a blank canvas and their imaginations, writers have a blank page and their ideas, musicians the notes and the rhythms of the world. Photographers have a piece of technology called a camera and all the objects that create the world we live in to create. Seeing and assembling the real world in a way that communicates what we see and feel, and getting into the camera through the lens and onto the sensor and then onto the ipad or other screen to make the viewer go ‘wow’ is the challenge, and the art of photography. I call it the digital divine.
Seeing the devine in the sublime, the subtle beauty in the world and deeply connecting to our environment percolates creation to the surface of expression. One of the ways we can connect with our environment and ‘find’ photos that will move our audience is to stop and look. Stop and feel. Put down the camera and see. Feel. What do you feel? What does the space and place you are in make you feel? What photo do I feel when I rub my hand against the tree? What do I feel when I lay down and stare and the sky?
As visual creators we often chase the visual epiphanies, what I call the visual orgasms in our world, for example a sunset, the Eiffel tower, the flower and the mountain, the photos of things we have seen somewhere else that tell us ‘Hey you! This is a great photo! Get your camera!’ The key to creating and seeing beauty in the quotidian is to connect with and be your child self. Seeing like a child, like a beginner- as if you have never seen this before- like you are seeing it for the first time will connect you with creation. Watch a child and see how he or she explores their world and witness all the beautiful discoveries they find as archeologists of the simple and the sublime. Exploring what you see and feel will give birth to inspiration. Seeing with fresh eyes will ‘find’ the beauty in everything. So the next time you are about to pull out the camera, rip off the lens cap and start pressing buttons and the shutter- stop. Stop and see what you see, see what YOU see and not what you were conditoned to see. See what you feel. Feel what you see. See what divine you can find in the beauty of your own backyard and create.
This must be the place- Talking Heads
December 06th, 2013
Photography is about seeing. Photography is about capturing light and subject in that box called the camera and making people feel. We obsess about the quality of the shoebox or the features it has but in the end it is all about what you see. Developing how you see the world is the key to great photography. What made you take the camera out of the bag? What made you stop the car to take a photo? Was it the light? The color? The texture? The simplicity? Or was it the subject.. a wild coyote just walked into your kitchen and downed a box of Captain Crunch. To get better at seeing just walk around your world and see what you see. So before you pull out the camera and start thinking camera math, choose to think creatively first..then stop and figure out how to get what you see into your lens and onto you sensor. So, to become a good photographer the first step is not to buy good equipment and just learn about what all the buttons are for but to start to nurture and develop how you see. Do you see photos in your mind and wake up at 3am with a great photo idea or do you like to roam around and capture what inspires you? One of the best ways to develop your seeing is to roam around without your camera and see what you see- make yourself a human camera. Use your iphone and not take pictures, just walk around and use it as a frame to frame what you see. If you want, shoot it. After all, you can take a Pulitzer Award winning photo on your iphone- you just wont be able to show it in Time Square or get shallow depth of field. Or, walk around and use your hands as a frame- like the cliché directors pose. Developing your visual voice as a photographer is what will separate you from amateur to artist.
High-dynamic-range imaging (HDRI or HDR) is a set of techniques used in imaging and photography to reproduce a greater dynamic range of luminosity than possible using standard digital imaging or photographic techniques. HDR images can represent more accurately the range of intensity levels found in real scenes, from direct sunlight to faint starlight, and is often captured by way of a plurality of differently exposed pictures of the same subject matter. 
You could say that is has been going on forever. You could say that it has been going on since the art form was developed. You could say that since the inception and invention of the art of photography there has been a lot of change. Since the French guys with moustaches made the first photographs in the late 1800s the art has seen a lot of different kinds of cameras and film and mediums to put an image on, such as daguerreotypes, calotypes, cyanotypes, ambrotyoes, ferrotypes, tintypes, kallitypes, platinotypes, large format, medium format, 35mm format, plate glass negatives, polaroid, palladium, dry plate, wet plate, etc, etc. etc. Mama Mia! There have been a lot of ‘types’.
Painters have it easy. All they need is some paint, a brush, a canvas and their imagination to create. We as photographers have to create from the real, from the material, the constructed and the concrete. Unlike painters and poets we don’t have the luxury of creating purely from our imaginations, we have to rely on boxes with buttons and wires and mirrors to create an image. We have to rely on technology and all the ‘real’ things in the world to create a photograph. Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, but to show you I’ll have to go find him and see if he will sign a model release.
So, here we are. It’s 2013, and we are at an amazing time in the history of the art. Now, for the first time we are seeing all expressions of photography from plate glass negatives to iPhones, from polaroid transfers to the rebirth of film. It is an exciting time. As the art form continues to evolve we are seeing a lot of ways of expressing our seeing and HDR is one of the new kids on the creative block. Like Photoshop and the bazillion other technology tools out there to play with pixels, HDR, High Dynamic Range, allows for a new way of seeing but there is a problem. HDR is a fad.
There is a lot of research and money being thrown at making cameras and the art form more and more technical, more and more based on technology. One one hand HDR is a push of the technology being used in still cameras, video cameras, Go Pros etc. etc. etc. On the other HDR is another way of creating something we have not seen before. Like the Stereoscope or printing on canvas HDR provides a fresh way of seeing an image. We can take a subject we have seen a million times in photographs, like a city skyline, take it in HDR and make is something new. New for now. The reason HDR is temporary is that it is rarely used to make us really feel. The most successful photographs are the ones that make us feel- make us respond emotionally. Flip through any old Life, Time or National Geographic magazine and see what catches your eye. I bet it’s the photos that make you feel. The only real emotion that HDR makes you feel is – ‘cool’, as in, ‘that looks different’. I have yet to see an HDR image that I will remember 10 years from now. Imagine the most amazing photos you have seen and picture them as HDR. Move you? Make you wonder? Or are they weird? Grandma, what weird eyes you have.
HDR is just another in the long line of ideas in this art called photography- one that is being over used, and often abused, because it is new. It will take hold for a while, get used a lot, until we get bored of it or something else comes along. Like that new shirt, Boy Band or new flavor of Dairy Queen Blizzard we eat it up until it gets old then we move on. In the end, the photographs that will mean the most in the future are the ones that rely less on technology and more on telling a great story. HDR is here for a limited time only.
Your digital BFF
“Poets, priests and politicians have words to thank for their positions”- Sting
You camera should be your friend. As we talked about in the last post, the modern DSLR camera is too complicated. I wrote about how the camera is simple and it is the camera manufacturers that make it complicated. They make it more difficult to use every time they add a new feature, a new menu and a new button. To make sense of it all they give you a big fat manual that we never take out of the plastic wrap because it is too thick and too many words and “why do I need 337 custom settings?” and “what is picture style anyway?” and “what am I going to do with another French version?”
Painter’s brushes don’t come with a manual and writers don’t get excited about a new word processing program. So why do we get so excited about new cameras? Photography is one of the most technical art forms but it doesn’t have to be so complicated. Most pros approach photography simply, putting creativity before buttons. This post is all about the importance of having a better relationship with your camera because to really make great photographs and express what you feel and translate that feeling through the lens onto the sensor and into the heart of the viewer, you need to be good friends with your camera. (How was that for a Hemingway sentence?) Your camera should be your BFF. If you talk to most pro photographers they don’t constantly update cameras every time a new one comes out. (Yes, some of them salivate like the rest of us at the bigger better more buttons thing that Canon just announced but most throw down their visa card down for the new lenses). Some of the best photographers in history, like Henri Cartier Bresson, used the same Leicas for years. Yes, maybe he was cheap and saved his money for lattes at the Café de Flore, but I bet the reason he used the same gear was because he got to know it intimately, like you know your favorite cooking knife, fly fishing rod or that sweet spot on your cars gas pedal that likes to go 120. By using the same gear for years, or at least thousands of frames, Bresson got to know all its little nuances, and by knowing it well he knew how to use it smoothly, easily, quickly. So if you want to become better friends with your camera don’t send it out to the consignment pasture as soon as something newer comes out, hang onto it and get to know how to make it your creative friend like New York fashion legend Bill Cunningham (great film!!! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NYqiLJBXbss)
Next week…how nothing is something
October 24th, 2013
I had lunch with a good friend the other day and he inspired me to get in front of the keyboard- so, here goes…
Your camera is simple. The problem is all the buttons. The problem is the menus. The problem is the camera companies who think we need our cameras to be smarter. The problem is we believe them. Over the last several years we seem to have gotten more interested in what the camera can do than what we can do as visual artists. We love our gear. (I suspect painters don't get very excited when a new brush comes out) We get more excited about the shiny new Nikon D 900,000 DXXXX or the Canon 5500 version 24b than we do about being creative. (MMMMM shiny)Each time the camera companies add a new button or feature we pull out our wallets thinking spending more means getting better photos. Its not true. Can we really blame them, they have to sell more cameras to stay in business, so in order to do this they keep adding more and more features so our camera can supposedly take better pictures.
They tell us the cameras are geniuses. They add so many things that if the features weren't mostly digital then the cameras would weigh 20 kilos. The modern DSLR (SLR) has had most of its buttons added in the last 10 years. Have these buttons and features made us better photographers? I don't think so, I think all the buttons and menus have made the camera too complicated- given us too much think about- too much math, too many options, too many choices. We seem to spend more time looking down at the buttons than we do being creative. Imagine if painters had dozens of new types of brushes that had features like electric hand warmers, auto swivelling brushes and special buttons that made you paint like Picasso or a brush that auto selected the paint colour it thought you needed. Feel creative? Then your used this on a canvas of paint by numbers that told you what colour goes where. Would you feel like an artist? Would you get what you wanted? Would you make a painting that moves people? The camera is not an artist. It is just an apparatus, it is a tool, like a brush, to help you, the artist capture your vision. It is just a box with a hole in it and if you let your DSLR camera make most of the artistic decisions by using the mountain or person running icon on the mode dial or leave it in auto or program mode, then you paid a lot of money for a point n' shoot.
Next week…how to have a better relationship with your camera and find good chocolate and a mini assignment…here is to exploring your camera and creativity
WORDS ABOUT THOUGHTS ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY