Calling All Photographers

Allow me to think out loud.

A number of you (there may be more lurking than I think) have been reading with interest my road to photographic discovery.  As a refresher, I’ve been taking pictures for years. Years and years.  But, I upgraded to a DSLR this last summer, took a manual exposure class and am on the road.  To where?  I don’t know.  I don’t have grand plans of becoming a professional photographer, though if the opportunity was arise I would consider it.  

But, can I tell you a secret?  I love this journey.  Photography challenges me, frustrates me, rewards me.  I wish I had more time to sink into it.  To just dive in and wallow for weeks.  I also love the knowledge that it’s a journey.  Some days I want to be better now, particularly when something isn’t working out how I would like.  But, most days I’m happy to be settled in for the long haul. I can say with confidence that this will be a hobby that I will pursue for the rest of my life.

I’m currently reading…wait for it…a 424 page book about my camera (Canon EOS 60D).  I bought the tome when I purchased the camera, but hadn’t really done more with it than search for specific things I needed to know.  I am happy to report that I had not yet resorted to using it as a door-stop.  However, last weekend I picked up The Visual Toolbox:  60 lessons for stronger photographs by David Duchemin (who is quickly becoming a favorite) and Lesson 3 told me to read my manual.  Sigh. Though I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s not as dry as I thought it would be.  In fact, it’s pretty informative.  I’m only on page 151, though, so there is a distinct possibility that my head will blow up before I reach page 424.

Since I’ve been reading quite a bit about photography and cameras I’ve also, naturally, been thinking quite a bit.  And I’ve found myself wrestling with a few things, which is why I’m here.  To share my thoughts and (hopefully) to gather the thoughts of those of a photographic bent who happen to read this.

David Duchemin’s introduction to The Visual Toolbox contains such gems as these:

“A friend asked me recently if I felt photographic educators were these days too strongly biased toward the technical, that they did not pay enough attention to the aesthetic.  I do.”

“You will notice here an absence of rules, because there are none.  We will not be exploring the Rule of Thirds, because there is no such rule, and I want to encourage a healthy anarchy among my students.  I want to introduce you to a handful of photographers who changed this art form and taught their generation, and later us, to see in new ways.  I want to show you principles and invite you to play with them, turn them on their heads and try new things until you prove me wrong..There is no right way–only ways that will give you the tools you need to create new and beautiful, honest things with your camera.”

“Some of us can do astonishing things with 12 strobes or can HDR the crap out of 16 frames taken on a $40,000 Hasselblad but still can’t make a photograph anyone truly gives a damn about.  The internet is full of those kinds of images:  technically perfect, frequently lauded with “Nice capture, man,” and utterly forgettable.  I think I’d weep if the best you could say about my photographs is that they’re tack sharp or perfectly exposed.”

“We’re all looking for the perfect little box with a hole in it, and they’re sexy little things, I’ll give you that…But Leica’s red dot isn’t going to make my photographs in better if they’re not already good.  Thinking differently will do that.  Wrestling with new ideas and compositions will do that.  Replacing the gear catalogs and popular magazines that are packed with ads–voices telling you, ‘You can shoot like a pro’ with the newest camera–with books of actual photographs that will help you do that.  Putting down your fancy D4 and picking up a completely manual for a while might do that, too.  And, yes, a small mirrorless camera might do that for you.  Or it won’t.  If you aren’t making beautiful, honest photographs with the camera you have now, you won’t do it for the one you’re lusting for.  I promise.”

Does that resonate with anyone besides me?  It seems that technical savvy will only get me so far.  But, I’m new to the technical.  So, how far deep do I need to go into the technical…or, maybe the better question is:  how do I balance the development of the technical with development of my photographic heart?  And how does one reconcile all of that with societal photographic expectations?

Obviously, there’s merit to learning the technical.  It seems a necessity…and I’m interested and open to it…and pursuing it.  I mean, how are photographic awards awarded?  Judges must be looking for…something. Are there some technical elements that are “non-negotiables”?  Or is it entirely a crap-shoot?

Here’s one thing I’ve already picked up on:  there seem to be certain expectations about sharpness and composition and white balance.  But, in the same breath there’s talk about how there’s a lot of subjective involved.  Prefer your photos warmer?  Or cooler? Subjective.  Tack sharp or not so tack sharp?  What’s your personal preference?

So, how does one seek feedback and constructive criticism if so much of it is subjective? How does one trust the feedback they receive when one person may say, “Too cool,” and the next person may say, “Too warm”?   How do I use conflicting opinions to develop (and improve) my art without being led astray by well-intentioned but misguided opinions?

There’s a part of me that wants to be a photographic island unto myself.  To be honest, that’s part of the appeal of photography: it’s a singular pursuit.  It’s me and my camera outside in the sun or the fog or the drizzle exploring the world. Sometimes with the husband moseying behind me, other times not.  But, there’s a part of me that recognizes I will learn much more if I engage…somewhere…somehow.  If I seek criticism and feedback. But, who’s feedback should I trust?

How many questions have I asked, thus far?  Let’s count. 15. That’s quite a few.

I should probably wrap this up.  It’s not a topic I’m agonizing over.  I think my only true concern is getting feedback on photos that leads me completely astray. It’s just things I’ve been thinking about, you know?  So, I thought I would share because I can’t be the only one who has been here.

How can you help?  Well, consider these final questions:

What kind of criticism have you found helpful?  What kind has served as little more than white noise?  Have you found that you’ve learned most on your own or as part of a group (a camera club or the like)?  How have you, personally, reconciled the apparent fact that photography is such a subjective beast that there is no photo that everyone will agree is fantabulous (though a few people will agree as there are lots of elite photography awards handed out on an annual basis)?  What about the struggle between the technical and the artistic?  How do you avoid getting so caught up in the technical that you forget the artistic?  Or visa versa?  Because, without a doubt, you can go too far the other way, too.

24.  24 questions posed from me to you.  With love.  And a big box of chocolates. And a balloon.  I’m a sucker for a mylar balloon.  And a final quote from David:

“If I were to begin a school of photography right now, it would send the geeks screaming for the hills.  Or at least avoiding my school in droves.  Every student would spend one year with one camera–a fully manual 35mm camera…It would have one prime lens and a light meter.  Students would be restricted to black and white film. And they’d be restricted from using anything digital except an iPhone.  There’d be no magazines and no how-to books.  Students would spend a year making photographs, talking about them, studying the work of photographers–past and present–who had something to say, those who made their mark in some way.  They’d study stories, and painting, and some art history beyond merely the annals of photographic history. For some people it would be a long, long year.”

Sign me up, David.

16 thoughts on “Calling All Photographers

  1. I think I’ve mentioned before that our admiration for David Duchemin is mutual. I am right with you on the long learning journey.

    My goal is to master the technical stuff so that I can forget about it and concentrate on the artistic. To understand the principles behind photographic “rules” so that I can choose whether to apply them or not in any particular photo. To immerse myself in the work of really good photographers, and other artists, to figure out what I admire about their work and then keep that in the back of my mind when I’m making my own images. To trust my own instincts and make work that satisfies me, rather than trying to please the crowd. To cull ruthlessly.

    Regarding criticism, I make sure to look at the critic’s body of work before I decide whether or not to take their criticism to heart; however, I find people in general are too nice (or rushed) to be critical in a meaningful way. Would love to have a mentor but I’m not sure how to go about getting one, especially in my area. I know that some of the stuff I did a year or two ago makes me cringe now, so hopefully that’s a sign of growth and progress… 🙂

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    1. How long have you been seriously involved in photography, Karen? I mean, actively pursuing the technical? Oh, the day that I don’t have to think about the technical! I spend so much time checking the triangle, taking a shot, checking the histo, adjusting, taking another shot. Histo…triangle…I am looking forward to studying the works of photographers I admire. My list is short right now….David Duchemin…ummmm…David Duchemin. 🙂
      I do think that’s the key…trusting your instincts and doing what satisfies you. I like to think that’s how you end up with truly extraordinary shots. I will eventually need to learn to cull. I think that I probably put far too many so-so pictures in my blog, but I fear readers will get bored if I’m all story and no picture. I do appreciate how you regularly post one photo with few words.
      As for criticism…I agree…taking a look at what they’re doing will go a long way. The thing about being nice…I think, in most circumstances, that’s a reflection of a lack of confidence in their own work. I can say that because that’s exactly how I feel. How can I offer criticism when my own body of work is so limited, so new, so full of error? I think many of us fear that if we offer criticism the criticized may respond with, “Really? Because I saw what you posted last week and it was crap!” I think there’s also a part of me that shies away from inviting criticism because some of the stuff I come up with seems pretty cool to me, and I don’t know if I want to be corrected. Some times yes…other times I prefer to live in my delusional little world. 🙂 There is a camera club here in Olympia that meets monthly. They have a meeting on Tuesday night. I am undecided if I will attend.
      Thank you very much for your thoughts. I, personally, hope that I look back at my stuff in a couple of years and say, “Truly a diamond in the rough! I knew there was genius in there!” ;P

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      1. I’d say I’ve been serious about photography as an “art” for about 3 years. But I learned how to use my husband’s analog SLR many years before that, and took snapshots of family life, vacations, etc.

        Your point about criticism is well-taken. That’s why I don’t critique others’ photos…who am I to be offering advice when I’m still a noob? Haha.

        I am sure that next year I’ll look back on some of this year’s crop of photos and wonder what I was thinking. At least I hope so. Gotta keep striving for improvement!

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      2. Right…but maybe we just need to get out of our own heads. Where I’m at in the journey…where you’re at in the journey…certainly we have something to offer someone.

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  2. Listen to your heart, your heart will know when you have nailed a killer photo! Learn the technical side to the best of your time and ability but I would worry more about “how to see”. I think the artistic side is just as important as the technical side. (Spoken as someone who has learning the technical stuff on her to do list this year!) You know what you like in a photo, trust your own judgement.

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  3. I think that learning the technical elements is like a jazz musician learning scales or an painter learning about color theory or learning to sketch. If you look at the background of any artist you admire, almost all of them have had some kind of formal training that informs the experimental work and boundary-pushing that they do later in their careers. The truly self-taught exist, but are anecdotes rather than precedent. Duchemin is suggesting that you read your manual for a reason, and to some extent, his audience is not brand-new photographers, so he’s talking to people who are obsessed with following rules because they are literally-minded people. The only reason that I feel any sort of comfort experimenting now is because I already know that I can take a pretty, beautifully-lit, perfectly focused image. I’m just not interested in that being the ONLY thing I can do.

    As for critique . . . it never hurts to be open to critique, but weigh critique like you would anything else — as one person’s opinion. And ask for the right kind of critique at the right stage of your journey. You might like this article here: http://www.lighting-essentials.com/how-to-get-give-and-take-criticism/

    I think you’re asking the right questions! 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Jo! And, I agree…I don’t think it’s an all-or-none on either side. There’s a balance. I’ve been taking pretty pictures for years…but are they beautifully lit, perfectly focused and well-composed? A number of them, yes…but by chance, not by design. The whole idea of learning manual exposure and all that comes with it is so that I can be more intentional about my approach. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by my desire to better clarify who I am as an artist through photography (and my concern that I not lose that in the technical pursuit), as I think that quest for artistry is, truly, what started me on this path in the first place. I think that’s going to be the challenge with criticism, to remember that it is one person’s opinion. Because I know, without a doubt, that I will eventually post a picture that I feel very strongly about, from both an artistic and a technical standpoint…and others will find fault. I will definitely check out the article! Thanks for your support…loved seeing you pop up when I posted the photo last week on CM.

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  4. I’m very hard on myself, so I get caught up in my technical mistakes too much. I want to enjoy the artistic side more this year, but I will say, it seems that the artistic is way more fun when you can bring it to life because you know your stuff technically. Knowing more technical stuff has definitely made it more fun overall for me. That probably makes no sense, but all to say, when the technical and the artistic combine in the right way, it’s magic. Our 60D just bit the dust, but it was a GREAT camera for us.

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    1. No, Lisa, it totally makes sense. And, I agree. Part of my struggle right now is because I, sometimes, want to do something but don’t know how to make it come out of that small black box, if that makes sense? There’s so much to learn! And I haven’t even started learning LR, yet! That will, undoubtedly, open up an entirely new Pandora’s Box! I love my 60D. My dear sis-in-law (the Jo who commented on this post) guided me towards my first DSLR and I think it’s the perfect fit for me. How long have you been pursuing the technical side of things? LOVED your photo of the windmill at sunset you posted the other day. The colors were beautiful! And the snowflakes!!!

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      1. Ok I thought I replied to this but now I can’t find the reply so forgive me if I posted twice. I got a new camera in the fall of 2014 and that’s when I started taking things more seriously. I’ve been shooting since I was young but in the past year or so I’ve really stepped it up. But your post is such a great reminder to nurture my artist and her eye. My daughter is a wonderful photographer, largely because she has such a creative eye and she doesn’t hold back like I do. I get on her about her focus points and she gets on me about my boring angles!

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