Craft in Photography

Craft + 1-2This is the last in my series on the triumvirate of style, voice and craft. These are key elements to growing your photography. I am going to analyze the above photo for the craft needed, but first, a bit about craft.

Craft is not last because it is least important. In fact, it is critical. But photographic craft can get tangled up in issues of gear, best technique for this or that, arguments about the best use of craft and so forth. All of these then distract from the really important part of craft, helping you achieve your goals as a photographer. Helping any photographer better communicate through style and voice.

Craft is basically about everything you control while taking a picture and optimizing it in the computer – what decisions you make about craft are important and affect any end results. If you "make no decision", for example, using the totally automatic setting on a DSLR turning it into a point-and-shoot, you are making an important decision of letting the camera control your image. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. Cameras do a pretty darned good job with things like auto-exposure and auto-focus.

But the more you understand about craft, the better you can control what is happening in your photo. Without craft, it can be challenging to communicate with your voice and style will then be arbitrary and often hard to keep consistent.

The problem with craft today is that cameras are so good in doing their job that many photographers simply leave that work to the gear. If you do that, you will get a photo and probably a good image. However, this can also lull you into forgetting that ultimately you are the one making the decisions about the photography. It is easy to then get sloppy and miss opportunities to get the best from your gear and your images.

Taking craft for granted can then prevent you from taking the pictures you really want to take. The more you learn about the nuances of craft (and I don't think a good photographer ever stops learning this), the better your choices will be to get an image that truly communicates how you feel about your subject, that strongly connects you and your subject in an image that you feel good about.

Craft + 1-2The shot seen above is an image taken at dawn on Cape Cod above the Marconi Beach. This area sits on a high bluff of sand overlooking the ocean. I wanted to show off something of the land and the ecosystem of bluff, even if just a little, along with the space of ocean and the sunrise clouds (that is part of my voice about how I see the world). So right away, I am making craft choices about how to frame the scene.

But first, I had to choose a focal length. I wanted to show an expanse of the clouds as well as an expanse of water. So I turned to my favorite focal length, a 24mm equivalent (to 35mm film or 35mm-full-frame). I chose my Panasonic LX-100 because it gives me that 24mm equivalent right away. This focal length (12mm on Micro Four Thirds, 16mm on APS-C) gives a distinctive look that I really like (a style choice) that gives that spacious look to the water. That is because using this wide at this distance changes perspective and gives a deep feeling to the scene (craft, style and voice).

I wanted depth of field from foreground to background, but I deliberately did not choose f/16. I didn't need it. With that focal length at this distance to the foreground, everything is going to be in focus from probably f/8 and smaller. I often choose f/8 for situations like this (which I did here) for several craft reasons, but the main one is that I gain a faster shutter speed. That faster shutter speed cuts down problems I might have with the wind blowing the grasses or any vibration of the camera during exposure (which can be a problem even on a tripod). If I don't need a small f-stop, I don't use it.

Exposure was a big challenge. I could see the sunlit, very bright clouds and the dark grasses just fine. Unfortunately, cameras don't see like we do and don't have the ability to see such a range of tonality. I exposed so that the bright sky would be as bright as possible without losing detail. That meant that the grass would be as bright as possible, too. The result is the following:

Craft 2This is interesting. That photo is an out-and-out lie. That is not what that scene looked like, at all! As Andreas Feininger once said long ago before computers, "The uncontrolled photo is a lie." And this shows exactly that. You don't need Photoshop to lie about a subject, and in fact, sometimes you need something like Photoshop to bring an image around to the truth.

So the next part of craft is working on the image in the computer. I work largely in Lightroom, and that is what I did here. The work I did was to balance out the tonalities so that the image actually reflected what was really there. That meant a bit of work on the dark areas and protecting the bright areas from losing detail. This is a lot like Ansel Adams used to do. He would expose to get the best detail for the darkroom so that he could better express how he saw a scene when he processed it. I exposed to get the best detail for the tonal range and the camera's capabilities so that the image would process well.

A simple photo, but a lot of choices involved in making the image, starting with deciding to get up for the sunrise!

Craft + 1-2

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My Photographic Story (so far): Finding My Voice

MyStory2Out of college, I worked as a naturalist and began selling some of my nature photography. But it was difficult to make enough money. So I went to work for the Minnesota DOT as an information officer/photojournalist. My photography became about people, highways, trains, planes, and bridges, and I got to do photography around the state for the state map. This was definitely a time I was developing my craft as a photographer while exploring ideas of style and voice. I enjoyed finding unique ways of portraying DOT work.

MyStory6I realized that long-term government work was not for me, and that I needed broader experience in order to pursue more types of photographic work. So I worked for a publications house in Minneapolis, then a video and photography production group also in Minneapolis (all corporate work). There is no question that this work stretched my use of craft, but both style and voice began to take a back seat. Any style or voice I might have had would always be secondary to the client's needs and wants.

(An aside: I don't think this is necessarily a requirement for client work, but it usually is when you are working for a company that does client work. If you are working as an individual, you can more easily show off a style, and even voice, if you are willing to work hard at finding the right clients. That is not so easy to do working for a company.)

I did some work that was important to me related to nature, but a lot of that had to take a back seat to the “day job” and family. Some people have been “successful” in our field because they either had no family or didn’t spend much time with family. I have recognized that there is a lot I “could have done” if I had spent less time with my wife and kids as they grew up, but I loved that time (and I still love the time I spend with my wife now that the kids are on their own). If I could do it again, I would not change that, though I know some things today that I didn't know then that might have affected some of my decisions (but then, isn't that life). 

MyStory8During my time in Minnesota, I worked very hard becoming the best photographer I could be for the DOT and I enjoyed traveling the state and even spending time with the governor and other officials. But that was largely not my voice — I was doing someone else’s message in a way that was effective for them. At the production house, I became very good at producing videos for corporations and I had executives asking specifically for me because I was very good at creating their messages in their voice. My voice was nowhere to be seen, and I was not supporting it much outside of that work.

MyStory9Then we moved to California looking for more variety in my work. I was fortunate to find a job at Outdoor Photographer. I was privileged to meet a lot of terrific photographers and see a whole range of work beyond what most people see, but once again, it was not my voice. I started doing my own articles (and books), but they were mostly how-to in an “objective” way with not so much of my voice in them either.

So when I started working on my own, I struggled a bit because for so very long, I had been mostly working with someone else’s voice or in a “non-voice” manner. I am proud of and pleased with the work I did, but I did miss this important part of a creative person’s life.

May apple, PennsylvaniaIt has taken me many years to find my voice again, and still, I sometimes stumble and miss it. This is not simply about the work I did. It also has to do with the “science” education I had in college (BS and MS in plant and soil science with minor in ecology). As a scientist, you weren’t supposed to have a “voice”, but only to “present the facts” (Randy Olson deals with this pretty well in his excellent book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist – which could have been written for me, and his blog, thebenshi.com). I have really had to fight my education, my upbringing in Minnesota (if you have ever heard Garrison Keillor, you will understand that. Minnesotans don’t promote themselves and think poorly of those who do), and my work over the years to get to where I am today.

I feel my last few books finally do reflect me and my voice, especially my Macro Photography from Snapshot to Great Shot book, which is very personal. But it has taken a long time to get there. 

Female regal jumping spider on barbed wire fence, Central FloridaI think everyone who wants to be a strong photographer and communicator needs to find their voice. I believe we are all individuals with distinct voices and with the potential to show something in our photography worth spreading. I encourage you to keep honing your voice and keep it out there. Being able to do that effectively, and to be able to use any style you like, means learning the craft of photography. You can always express yourself and explore what it means to bring your voice to your images, but the more you know about the craft of photography, the more you control and ability you have to do that.

My Story bat 2

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The Photographic Voice

Voice 3Voice has become so important to me because for a long time, I was not able to use my voice as a photographer (more about that in the next post). Voice is what comes from the heart. It is about the choices you make to communicate about what you care about in photography. It is when your heart connects with your images. 

It is important to me to make the distinction between style and voice. Style is about a look applied to photographs, a look that might be unique to you, but the look itself is more important than the subject. Whenever I say things like this, I know some people what to say, ‘Wait a minute! As a nature photographer, of course the subject is important.’ Absolutely. I am not saying that the subject is not important, only that style is not concerned about the subject as much as it is the look. Voice is very much about the subject and how you treat it in images.

Both style and voice can be very personal. Style is, I believe, easier to apply to your photography because you can learn a way of creating a look then use the choices involved in that look immediately. For example, if you wanted to use a style of very shallow depth of field on flowers, you simply use a telephoto and a wide f-stop.

Voice requires a different level of thought that asks you to delve more deeply into who you are. Todd Henry, author of the excellent book, Louder Than Words, says, "Developing your voice requires (a) a willingness to embrace curious exploration of your life and work, and (b) the grit to persistently do hard things that have no immediate payoff, trusting that the benefits will come over time."

I love to take low-to-the-ground, wide-angle close-ups of nearly everything. That is a style because it is not concerned about the subject matter. When I add in a special connection I might feel with a certain subject, say a flower or insect, a connection that comes from the heart and that "curious exploration of your life and work", then this becomes voice (as I mentioned in an earlier post, it is often difficult to totally separate style, voice and craft from any discussion of an image).

Voice 2This is not simply about the subject you choose to portray, though it starts there. I believe voice is something deeper. I thought that Kathy Eyster’s comment on the first blog post of this series was great and gave some additional insight on style, voice and craft. She said that voice is what you choose to say. That absolutely applies to voice as a photographer.

What you choose to say definitely starts with subject, but if you stop there, your voice is not necessarily going to be very strong or even heard. Tons of people photograph nature and this extends to nearly any subject that you or I might choose to photograph. Voice should differentiate you from the crowd because you have something unique to say, so simply choosing a subject is not enough.

Voice 1What do you choose to say about the subject? That is key. What is it about the subject that is truly important to you? Why do you care? Why should anyone else care? Your voice expresses answers to those questions and more.

Say I photograph a bumblebee. If I simply put on a macro lens, get the bee sharp and take the picture, I haven’t said very much other than here is a bumblebee. On the other hand, if I feel strongly that bees need to be seen in their environment and work to clearly show both bee and environment together, that starts to reflect my voice. Or maybe I feel strongly that bumblebees need to be seen more clearly for their beauty. Then I might get as close as I could to fill up my frame with bumblebee so that only its beauty could be seen in the image (that might even include some cropping in the computer). Simply shooting a bumblebee on a flower is a snapshot that has no real voice.

I can tell you from personal experience that voice is not always easy, and that expressing something unique about your subject can be scary. As soon as you try something different, unique to you about how you experience your subject, you are vulnerable. You are opening yourself up to criticism. There will be plenty of people who will tell you that you did it wrong, you have the wrong idea, your photography is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. That is no fun, but that doesn’t happen all the time. Still, it happens enough if your voice is strong that you have to be prepared for it. If you are not feeling a little vulnerable about some of your images at times, then you probably are not strongly using your voice.

Teddy Roosevelt has a famous quote that expresses this:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Finding your true, authentic voice as a photographer takes some thought and some work. I know this is true because it has been an ongoing part of who I am as a photographer for many, many years. Yet, that authentic voice is yours and yours alone. For me, it is worth the effort.

Voice 4

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Photographic Style

Style 2A lot of what you see in photo books and magazines is more about style than anything else. You are seeing how good photographers make unique choices in order to create interesting and even impactful images.

Style is always about the image and how it is made by the photographer. A certain style can be applied to any subject, even if the photographer does not care about the subject itself (though he/she might care about their style). This is especially true for advertising photography.

Michael Flaherty made me realize that this sounds like you can simply apply an effect and call it a style. That is not what style is about. Style is about the consistent visual choices that a photographer makes that affects his or her body of work. Style is not about simply applying an effect. It is about a visual look that a photographer (or any artist) uses consistently that then gives their work a consistent look.

For example, I want you to think outside the box of a nature photographer because the illustration might be clearer. Think of a photographer in a studio. She has an assignment to photograph a certain food dish for a publication. A traditional (and effective) way of photographing food is with a large softbox of light directly over the food. But she decides she wants something different. She decides (style choice) to use that softbox, but move it more to the backside of the food, giving a soft backlight. She likes that look and has used it many times on different subjects.

She then decides (style choice) to shoot with really limited depth of field, because that is also a look she is partial to. She grabs a telephoto with a wide maximum lens opening and shoots wide open. She moves around and changes the focus point until the look seems just right to her, maybe even squeezing the shutter as she goes. She checks the images on her LCD and likes what she got. That is all about style.

Style choices are really important, not in some arbitrary sense, but about you and your approach to photography.

Photographers often lose their way with style when they start trying too hard to photograph like someone else or to please someone else other than themselves. This is not just about amateurs and camera club photo contests (though this definitely happens there). I have seen it in pros, including me, who start trying so hard to please a client that they lose track of who they are as photographers. That weakens our images and they often fail to fully satisfy either the photographer or the client.

One exception to this is when we are exploring something new to see how it fits into our style. You might read about a certain way a photographer photographs and has a very unique style, so you want to try it out, too. So you try to match what that photographer did in terms of technique to see how it might work for your subject matter.

Style 3I have often done this when I have seen work from photographers from totally different disciplines, such as wedding photographers, and I see something really unique and interesting. I wonder what that technique would look like applied to nature photography, so I give it a try and explore a new set of choices. This is why, for me, all photography has the potential to influence my work and make me a better photographer, not just nature photography. Sometimes I feel that a lot nature photography is self-referential and simply mimics other work in the field rather than exploring new possibilities.

After some exploring with a new style choice, I then look at it seriously and decide if it works for me or not. If it does, then I start incorporating it into my work, but now from my unique perspective so that it becomes part of my style and not simply duplicating someone else’s.

Experimenting, trying new choices just to see what happens is also an important way to help you refine your own style. That is one thing I love about digital photography. If you start wondering, “What if …”, then you can just do it! You instantly see what happens, you can review it on the LCD, and even then, start to decide if it works or not. Then you can see it again when you bring the images into the computer.

Style 1Style is important today because it helps give a unique look to anyone’s images. There are a lot of people who see certain aspects of my work and immediately recognize it as mine even if they don’t see a credit right away. That is about having a personal style. But it has to come from who you are as a person and a photographer. If you simply try to copy someone else’s style or some of their style choices as a superficial glaze on your images, the images will never have the impact and effectiveness they could have. Being a copy of “someone else” is always about being a copy and never as good as or as authentic as the original photographer or as yourself.

The photos here are all from Cape Cod.

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Style, Voice and Craft in Photography – An Introduction

StyleVoiceInto 3I have been doing a lot of thinking about these things lately because they deeply affect me. I also think they are very important for anyone who wants to take their photography to a new level. They will take anyone beyond the phase of finding the next "10 top tips for better photography." (I want to be clear that looking at “top tips” is not a bad thing – that can stimulate anyone to try new things – it becomes a problem when that becomes the focus of one's photography.)

So I am going to do a series of posts about these things. This post will be an introduction to what these things can mean to a photographer. Next I want to look at each one individually in separate posts. Then I will share some of my personal journey on coming to terms with these parts of photography. Last I will offer some additional resources that you might find of interest. I will try to pick images that illustrate these concepts, because that is useful information. But this is also hard, since for me, style, voice and craft go together.

A few years back, there was a big push in photography about style. A lot of folks talked about photographic style and what that might mean. "How to find your style as a photographer" even became titles and topics for articles and books. It is still important and often discussed by photographers.

Style is about the unique visual choices any photographer makes in order to create an image. For example, if you always shot f/16 for everything, regardless of the subject, that would be a unique visual choice and a style. Style is not about everyday choices a photographer makes just to get the shot. It is about the choices a particular photographer uniquely makes to create a particular look in the image.

StyleVoiceInto 1Any visual choice, from composition to shutter speed to focal length, can be a style decision. Most of the choices we make as photographers are problem-solving to create a particular shot and they are not about style. However, if we consistently make the same choices in ways that are unique to us, then that becomes style.

Voice is a term that is often used for writers and refers to the special way that any individual communicates about things that are important to them. It also fits photography. When we photograph things that are important to us, show them boldly as important in our images, and treat them with respect, that is about our “voice.”

StyleVoiceInto 2Voice is about communicating from the heart, about showing who you are. Style is more about communicating from the head, about making a photograph interesting. Both are important to developing the full potential of any photographer. Both can be found alone in photographs as well. A lot of advertising photography, for example, is all style and little that is really important to the photographer (that said, some photographers even find a voice here by finding a style that connects to some deep part of who they are).

Voice can be a part of an image without style, too. A lot of beginning photographers are very excited to photograph things that are important to them. The images often don’t communicate that voice very well because these photographers need another tool, craft.

Craft is about how you use the camera, your knowledge of photography, and all of the parts of taking a picture in order to better control how you communicate with a camera. Style is impossible without a strong degree of craft because you have to know your craft in order to make unique decisions about how you use it. Voice is very difficult without craft because then the images often don’t communicate well or effectively.

StyleVoiceInto 3I believe that as photographers who care about photography and our subjects in nature, growing in all three of these areas is important. They can help the beginner, but they also help the long-time expert photographer. This is a continuing part of our education as photographers as we learn new parts of our craft in order to more effectively communicate what is important to us as our voice and to better use style to make unique, strong and interesting images.

The photos here are all from Maine.

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Joy in Photography

Joy 1Photography is fun, right? Then why do so many photographers take it sooooo seriously? I know this happens. They start worrying if they have the "right" camera, the "right" lens, the "right" gear, the "right" subject, the "right" technique. And suddenly photography starts becoming very, very serious.

I am reading a most interesting book by Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. In it, the author talks about looking at the stuff in our lives and asking if they bring joy or not. I think that's not a bad question to use for both our gear and our photography.

I love Kondo's approach of looking at something that we felt worked well for us in the past but isn't today – she suggests thanking the object for its service then letting it go. I really like that idea and am already applying it to some of my "stuff", even including how I work.

Joy 2This can really help all of us simplify our photographic lives and even find new joy in taking pictures. I run into photographers all the time who are tired of carrying around their gear, for example, and are happier shooting with their iPhone. But they don't want to get rid of the old gear and get new because of their "investment." What kind of investment is that? Gear that doesn't get used and brings less joy into the photographer's life? That doesn't sound like a very good investment to me.

Or we can get trapped into taking pictures "for others" rather than for ourselves. We start paying attention to others' "shoulds", whether that is from the camera club or the latest photo magazine, and start paying less attention to what is truly satisfying to us. For example, I really am becoming less and less interested in the big, dramatic landscape that everyone photographs. There is so much to nature beyond that, and I want to discover and share that, even if I don't get any "likes" on Facebook. That is bringing me joy.

Joy 3So what brings you joy in your photography? Are you honoring that? And what keeps you from really finding that joy? Are you paying attention to that as well?

The photos here were all taken when I was in Maine and Massachusetts at the end of July and the beginning of August.

If you get a chance, check out my combination package of a print book plus video short course that will give you instruction, insight and intelligent information that will help you improve your photographic craft, 6 Steps to Better Nature Photography.

Posted in Landscape photography, Nature photography | Tagged , , | 10 Comments