Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Art of Photography

Most of us drive a car. And, ironically, most of us consider ourselves above average drivers. Statistically, that's impossible of course, but neverthess, the delusion endures in many of us that we could really be professional race car drivers. After all - we know how to press the gas when we need to, and we can certainly press the brake to avoid hitting something. And we've been driving in traffic every day for years and years - some of us for decades. So we convince ourselves that the only difference between us and a pro racecar driver is the car we drive. "Hey, if I had a 700 hp Ferarri I coulda won that race too! pfffft!"

Well, not so fast there, Speed Racer.

There is a whole lot of difference between driving at 70 miles per hour and driving at 150 mph. I know because I have tried driving at 150 mph. It was a rush to be sure, but you really need to know what you're doing behind the wheel when you're travelling at those kinds of speeds. Every subtle move you make is exaggerated by your speed and can get you into trouble faster than you realize. The slightest mistake and you are off the road and into the ditch in a flash. Your brakes will superheat at that speed and they suffer from brake fading and stop working properly. What do you do at that speed with no brakes? Also, if you are going 150 mph and you come up on a flock of other cars running at say 60 mph, it's like driving into a parking lot at 90 mph. Your normal driving skills are not going to be able to handle that. Then there is the fear factor. What if you are in a race on the track and there is a crash up ahead and an impenetrable wall of smoke stretching across the whole track? Do you stop and inch your way through to avoid hitting the cars that may or may not be sprawled across the track there, and take the chance that another driver will plow into the back of you in the smoke field? Or do you grip the wheel, clench your teeth drive through at full speed to keep your place in the race, and just hope for the best of luck not to hit anything?

Driving a car in traffic every day gives us some basic skills for manipulating a vehicle through normal traffic, but it does not make us a pro. Also, having a fast car doesn't immediately make you a pro driver either - unless you practice enough at high speeds under racing conditions.

Similarly, I think most all of us have owned cameras and can take pictures. And I believe most people consider themselves to be above-average photographers. After all, it's all in the camera, right? It's all just about pointing that amazing piece of photographic technology at the subject and pressing a button, right?

Again, not so fast there, sunshine.

A friend of mine who happens to be a professional photographer told me recently that he once was talking about this to a corporate manager and he made the comparison that saying anyone can take the picture if they have the camera is like saying that anyone could do his job if they could just have access to his computer.
The camera is just the tool. But the photographer is the artist that creates the art. Having access to Leonardo DaVinci's brushes and paints would not necessarily allow you to paint the Mona Lisa. You must have talent as well. So it is with photography.

Sure, there is a large element of technology in the mix. In fact, that knowledge is part of the technical skill needed. But it's also about composition, and mood, and color, and lighting. Lighting is HUGE in photography.

The average person might take their little Kodak digital camera and switch it to portrait mode, and point it at their friend and press the button, and voila! a perfectly exposed, perfectly focused, and perfectly composed picture might come out. But that would be a combination of automation and luck. Can you look into the photo and tell what mood the person was in? Could you tell what they were thinking at that moment? Did it capture them? Or did it just simply record the fact that someone was standing there?

The chances are that certain elements were NOT so perfect. Maybe there is red-eye from the reflection of the flash off the retina in the back of the eye. Maybe there is some blur because of motion of the subject or the camera. Maybe they are not centered, or maybe they are but should not have been. Maybe part of the subject is cut off, or maybe an important element is missing or severed. Maybe the foreground is in focus, but the background is not. Maybe it should have been that way but wasn't. Maybe it was too light, or too dark, or too green, or too pale, or the color was too saturated.

Sure you know about light and dark, but what do you know about shadows? What about how to eliminate them? WHEN to eliminate them? Do you know about the color temperature of the light? Do you know how to use backlighting? Side-lighting? light diffusers? Do you know the difference between how incandescent lights affect the exposure vs flourescent light, vs ultraviolet light? Do you know how different kinds of lighting can present a mood? Do you know what an 18% gray card is and how to use it? Do you know how and why to use a light meter? Do you know what depth-of-field means, and how to adjust it using the f-stops on your camera lens? Do you know what an f-stop is? Do you know how shutter speed affects a picture, and how to use it to get the effect you want? Do you know what the trade-off is as you make it faster? Do you understand why? Do you know what the ISO rating is on film, or how that affects film speed on a digital camera that has no film? Do you know what film speed means? If a higher ISO rating means a higher sensitivity to light, then why don't we just always use the highest possible ISO setting or film? What is the trade off in granularity? Why? Does that affect color as well as resolution?
Do you know when to use a flash and when to use natural light? Do you know when to use a tripod? Do you know what colors transfer well to print, and which don't? Do you know anything about colored filters on your lenses and why you might use them? Do you know the effects of certain lenses on pictures of dark tree branches against a light sky? Where the purple shadowing comes from? Do you know what lens flare is and how to avoid it, or how to use it well?

And then there is composition. The artistic aspect of photography. How and when do you use silhouettes? How do you handle checkerboards of light and shadow and still retain some detail on the shaded areas? Why would you even do this? How do you make a woman look sexier? And a man look stronger? How do you create tension in a scene? How do you use props to suggest ideas? Is a photograph always just a stolen moment of time, or are there ways to imply a longer term to the photo? Can you put a whole lifetime into one picture? Can a person be summed up that way? Can you show love? Sex? Caring? Fear? Hatred? Poverty? Wealth? Starvation? Disease? Discomfort? Arrogance? How can you paint a picture of loneliness with a camera? Can you show a comfortable good feeling on a quiet Saturday morning with the whole weekend of opportunities stretching out before you? Can you show the naivety of youth? Can you show the wisdom and cleverness of age?

Can you show life?

Can you make the audience for your work feel any of these emotions themselves? If so, then you are far beyond the average person taking pictures. You are an artist in the photographic medium.

I'd like to point out two friends of mine who are excellent photographers. One is a professional and one is a gifted amateur. The professional is Park Street and his work can be seen here: The gifted amateur is Kathy and her beautiful work on sunrises and sunsets in Colorado are on her blog here: I encourage you to do yourself a favor and visit these artists' work.

Recently, Park and I were talking about his latest artistic interest he calls, "Time Capsules". Think of what a time capsule is. You take a number of objects that you care about, that you have invested some of yourself in, and things that are very indicative and representative of this moment in time, and then you bury them for some future time when someone digs them up and finds a treasure trove of memorabilia about this point in history. Imagine what it would be like to open up a old time capsule from Roman times and find samples of their daily lives then!

Well Park is doing something like that with photography. It's all about the composition. His subject is usually a child. He surrounds the child with all their favorite toys and interests. If they love astronomy, maybe there is a telescope and an astronomy book, or maybe it's toy cars. Often, there is a favorite family pet. And the entire corner of a room is 'propped' such that all the things that capture the life and interests of the child are captured in a perfect moment in time. A Time Capsule, if you will. These are more than wallet photos for the Dad to carry around with him - these are full-scale portraits suitable for art galleries, and you may see some there soon. But for now, you can see some of these as well as other excellent pieces on his website.

Kathy is a scientist at work during the day, but her deep passion is her photography of sunrises in Colorado. The photo at the top of this article is one she took just yesterday. To show how dedicated she is, you must realize that she gets up at ungodly hours every day so that she can get out to her favorite parks in the mountain areas just around Denver in time to witness the sunrise. Her goal is to capture every single sunrise every single day without break, for a year. That is quite a goal, considering we all get sick or busy or tired. There are also weather concerns, etc. But she has managed to capture the most amazing scenes of sky and cloud ever, between her sunrises and sunsets. Even her daytime pictures show insight and a great feel for light, color, composition, etc. Check out her blog and see what notions you can. I have taken copies of over 150 of these photos for my screensaver on my PC, and they are all beautiful, and some of them are even breathtaking. And it's worth visiting regularly because she is always adding more.

So there is a lot more to the art of photography than just buying a good camera. But a good camera is a start. And we all have to start somewhere.


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