Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Digital Photography – A Real Stimulus Package

My grandparents, aunts and uncles at Christmas in the 60's

Ebenezer Scrooge would have loved digital photography.

Before his ever-faithful nephew gave him a digital camera Old Ebenezer would say, “Bah! Humbug! Every time I press that button it cost me money. And for what, fuzzy photos for future memories, assuming I want to remember any past Christmas.” (I know, I know, there weren’t any cameras in Victorian England… I’m just making a point here.)

Scrooge was right; back in the jolly of days of photographing Christmas with film it did cost us money every time we pushed that button. This had a great influence on how we made photos.

My family’s roots have a good amount of Scotch-Irish Penny-pinching heritage. Maybe your family used the camera like we did. We could squeeze a whole year of events on one roll.

In order to get as much for our film money as we could we wouldn’t waist a shot. We’d dress everyone in their Sunday best, make sure the sun was shining on their faces, backup to include as much as possible, have everyone look at the camera and say cheese. Then the one taking the picture says, “Ready, one, two, three …” then snap the shutter… once.

At Christmas we all gathered at our grandparent’s house. For the annual Family Christmas Photo we’d pull the sofa out from the wall, fill the sofa with the grandparents and grandkids and arrange everyone else – by height – behind the sofa. Next we put the camera on a tripod and set the self-timer. This was an important event so we’d take two shots to be sure we had it.


That's me on the far left with all my cousins.

Ebenezer, before he got his digital, would have been pleased, well, at least he would have appreciated the economy of it all.

Now I don’t want to imply that digital photography is cheaper. You’ve got to buy a digital camera. While the simpler ones can be inexpensive, if you get serious about it, the cost of a whoop-t-do SLR digital camera can make you whish we were back in the days of film.

Next you need a computer, but most of us have one already. Then you need some software, but unless you’re serious about your photography you can get by with the software that comes with the camera.

However, the cost to shoot one photo is the same as making hundreds of photos when it comes to digital. Now we can take lots and lots of photos, pick the best ones and delete the rest.

This Christmas instead of having everyone stop what he or she is doing and look at the camera (or line-up behind the sofa) just photograph them as they are. Take photos of people interacting with each other this holiday season. Isn’t this why we look forward to this time of year—rekindling of relationships?


My daughter reacting to a present at her birthday party.

This season look at the edges of that LCD (screen) on the back of the camera just before you shoot. Do you need the back of Uncle Henry’s baldhead in the corner of the picture? Is that Aunt Mary’s foot sticking in the side? Do I need it in this picture? If my subject is my grandmother on the other side of the crowded room do I need all those folks facing all directions between my camera and her? Maybe I should zoom in or move closer or both.

But what if you do want the Christmas tree in the photo with the family? Move around and find an angle where the main subject is obvious and the complimentary subjects don’t take over the photo. Try being sure the main subject is closer to the camera and the other things are further away is one way.

Remember when people are talking—someone is listening. Be sure to take many photos so you can capture not just the enthusiasm of the talker, but also the interest (or not) of the listener. Wait for the conversation to switch and the roles reverse and make more photos.

Make pictures of people cooking, relaxing, in conversation with each other. Take photos of the outings to the ice rink, skiing, or whatever your traditions may be this season rather than just the posed shots.

Over time and through the years you will see some patterns. I had an uncle who took photos of my Dad each Christmas with his car. For several years my uncle made pictures of my Dad with his head under the hood of whatever car he had that year. It made a funny series when my uncle put them together in a slide show for the family one year. Here is David working on his Ford, here he is working on his Chevy, here his is with a new car…

So why is digital photography a real stimulus package? Because even Scrooge would take many more photos with his digital camera since it no longer cost more each time the button is pushed.

This digital stimulus package will improve your family photos and with no additional cost to take lots of pictures so you can edit down and just keep the good ones.

Keep your camera battery charged and remember to get those photos off the camera and into the computer so you can make even more memorable moments this holiday season.

Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Learning from the Masters

Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery…

Last week someone said to me, “I love the Rembrandt lighting you used in the portrait of our CEO.” A day or so after that a photographer friend of mine mentioned that she could see Eugene Smith’s influence in my photography.

Well, I don’t mind telling you I felt really good. Those familiar with the work of Eugene Smith know how flattered I felt.

As my interest in photography developed (pardon the pun) I became fascinated with the work of great photographers. I studied their work until I felt I knew why they were considered Greats.

Several years into the profession I was privileged to work with Don Rutledge; an extraordinary photographer. Don had an encyclopedic knowledge of photographers both legendary and contemporary. 

 “Writers,” Don would say, “can talk at length about famous writers, but most photographers don’t know anything about the greats in our field. How can they expect to learn if they don’t study”?

An interest in learning from the masters can turn a trip to an art museum or a stroll through local art galleries into an exhilarating adventure.

What kind lighting did the painter use: Was it midday sun, window light or was it a single candle creating the mood?

Why did the artist choose this moment, that expression, those surroundings? This is a fascinating study and it all comes back to you as you are composing a photo a few days or even years later.

Just studying what was done alone doesn’t help much. It is necessary to learn how to replicate what you’ve learned. This knowledge along with your own way of “seeing” will one day result in your own style.

The best advice I ever received about developing a style of my own was, “Don’t worry about it.” That’s easy for some well-established pro to say to a fledging photographer.

However, he was right. Sure enough, someday someone will say how much they like your style. Don’t say, “Oh wow! I didn’t even know I had a style.” Be cool.

The style we see in other’s work is usually apparent in the way they handle (1) Lighting, (2) Composition and (3) the Moment.

Lighting creates mood. The warm light of an evening campfire sets the mood. What do we include in the photo we are about to make? What do we exclude? Is the girl facing the fire lost in thought when we shoot or is she looking into the shadows the texture of her skin catching the light? Do we wait to see her eyes or capture that tilt of her head that seems to say so much?

I cut my teeth in photography using the available light. It was a good five years before I started experimenting with studio lights. This was a good because I learned to see what is natural and then I learned to duplicate it with artificial lights.

Making a photograph that grabs the attention of the viewer is a good thing, but learning how to hold that attention can take time. Something that holds attention is called “the decisive moment.”

It’s easy to know the decisive moment in sports photography. A basket is made or the pass is caught. Knowing the decisive moment and capturing it with the camera is not exactly the same thing, but the capturing part can be learned.

At first glance a committee sitting around a conference table brings to mind all the excitement and action of a chess match. However, there is action there to capture just as in a sports event albeit more like golf than rugby. Still, there are pivotal moments that tell the story of what is transpiring in the meeting.

Some of the photographers I’ve studied and continue to study are: James Nachtwey, William Albert Allard, Sebastião Salgado, Dave Black, Eugene Smith, Carolyn Cole, Joanna Pinneo and Don Rutledge.

Google these names and check them out yourself. If you know of others whose work you appreciate please send me an email and let me know who they are. I am always looking to improve and grow.