Thursday, November 6, 2014

Lets talk composition

Composition – for me – is an intricate part of my 'seeing' process. I go to great lengths to look at scenes from different angles whilst thinking of different focal length lenses and how that changes the relationship between subjects in a photo. 

What do you do for example when you can't use the rule of thirds (or is that turds), leading lines and frame in frame? Do you just wing it? Use your gut feeling? Or do you spray and pray and hope you have one photo where you can crop something out from? 

What if I told you there's a whole other way of framing your compositions out there. It's not new. But it's a more classical, dare I say a more refined way of composing. And it dates back as early as the Greek Temples like the Parthenon.  

Let's start our discussion with this seemingly simple looking photograph. It's a photograph I made a few months ago in Banff. I took just one photo (I exposed 2 sheets) on this location. Once I saw the composition I wanted in my head (after about 30-45 min of walking, pondering and thinking), it was just a matter of setting up the camera and expose those 2 sheets.

So what's so special about this you'd ask? Let me explain.

If you are a follower of the rule of thirds you will say tsk tsk tsk you didn't put the stump on one of the thirds and the mountain is practically placed in the middle. Those are no no's! 

I am not a fan of the rule of thirds because I don't think in the 4x5 format, it makes for a balanced frame at all. Here is an example of the rule of thirds grid overlaid on this photo (I also indicated the middle on both axis).

If I would have used the rule of thirds I would have had to use a shorter lens, the stump in the foreground would have covered up the reflection. And personally I don't like overlaps. But to each his/her own of course. And the composition would have too much breathing room around it. I like things tight and I only like to include the most essential elements to tell my story. 

Let me explain how I DID compose this photo.

First I looked at the bulk of the photograph. The mountain, the shore line, the reflection and the water.  Maybe you noticed already but all that stuff makes a perfect square (red) starting from the bottom edge. The top of Mount Rundle would be the top part of the square. I then 'guessed' where the shoreline in the distance had to be. A technique I love to use in a composition is to use a line starting from a point where an imaginary circle (centred around the bottom left corner) crosses the baroque diagonal (blue line) for that square. That's where – in this photo – I placed the horizon line (green dotted line). This line actually makes what we call a √2 rectangle. A rectangle where the short side is 1 and the long side is √2 (more on that later). This whole exercise will tell you how high your tripod needs to basically be and what focal length lens you need to use. Sounds more complicated than it is. Here's that all explained visually. Also note the repeating diagonal of Rundle's edge (solid green line).

Let's move on and let's place that stump in a spot that is visually appealing. What I did for this was very similar. I kept the square on the bottom but I flipped it all around. I again used the baroque diagonal but this time I drew a circle, centred around the top right corner of that square. And applied the same technique as previously discussed. Here's the two overlaid. 

There, now I knew I wanted to place that stump on that horizontal line. But where vertically? I decided to use another technique for that. But now based on the diagonal of the whole frame instead of just the bottom square. I used the same baroque diagonal (bottom left to top right, red) and lowered the reciprocals (blue). 

By doing so I can also trace secondary vertical and horizontal lines out of the tension points of these two lines (in green). 

That allowed me to do three things. It allowed me to frame the top of Rundle in between the two verticals, it allowed me to check placement of the tops of the trees (I was fortunate the composition did that for me) and I placed the stump on the left vertical. Also note how the triangle on the bottom frames the grasses around the stump. Again, yes that was intentional.

I could have obviously used the other diagonal and placed the stump on the right. Although the composition would have then been very right heavy because of the overly dark tones on the right hand side. But I can use the sinister diagonal (top left to bottom right) to further refine my composition. I did so and lowered the same reciprocals. Overlay all of this and now I can add tertiary verticals and horizontals and even go beyond that with quaternary lines. The design of this photo should now be very clear to you. 

Another technique I love to use is designing with root rectangles to place elements as previously touched on. 

Let's take the top section for example. If I draw a square now at the top of this photo and do the diagonal and circle 'trick', you can see that the reflection is now purposely placed as well. See how the circle 'cups' the reflection? The top of the reflected trees fall on the √2 rectangle. If I now draw another diagonal starting from the same point I previously started from to that √2 rectangle, I can now find the √3 rectangle. And so on and so forth. 

Of course you can use the other diagonal too and start drawing a circle from another corner and do this all again. Kind of to 'double check' your composition.

Anyway. That's just some of the stuff I think about when composing photographs. It looks all very technical but these techniques can easily be integrated in your workflow. If you use live view to compose your work for example, you already do this to some extent

Using a large format camera gives me the advantage I can stand back a little farther and study a photograph on the ground glass (that things does have a lot of lines on it) in all peace and quiet under the dark cloth. Plus it is upside down and reversed, which means my brain is not recognising what I'm looking at and therefor I can think about this in a more abstract way. 

Solid composition is the coat hanger of any piece of art. Sculpture, architecture, painting, poetry, and yes photography as well. Back in the day, painters would go to great lengths to design their paintings. So why wouldn't we try to do the same? 
I think it's pretty unfortunate that so many beginning photographers place more importance on technique than solid composition.  

Training can make your eyes and mind pick up on these things. I am lucky I have a background in graphic design. But studying the old photographic masters, studying paintings and architecture and thinking about these things while visiting musea will make you a better artist in the end. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Photography, the mental game

When I started out in photography some 14 years or so ago, none of my instructors prepared me for the fact that photography would be such a tough mental game to play. 

Back then I wasn't interested in photography because I had something to say. I wasn't interested in it because I wanted to make money with it. All I wanted to do was to take pretty pictures. 

When I moved to Canada years later I thought that I would now finally live in a place where I could have time to work on those pretty pictures. After all, with the Rocky Mountains so nearby, I would be able to tap into an infinite source of majestic scenes. Succes was guaranteed! Or so I thought. 

Enter the mind games. 

Now I know photography runs much deeper than that. As I matured as an artist I became aware of the fact that I was becoming more and more unsatisfied with what I was doing. Not because I couldn't identify pretty scenes or take photos of those pretty scenes. But because I had seen it done, all before. And everything I was seeing, was getting boring. 

I didn't really understand what was going on with me back then, and why I was feeling what I was feeling, but looking back I now know I went through an important artistic change. 

When I give talks about photography I often talk about my personal journey. Not because it is a unique story (who are we kidding?) but because I believe it may help people to better understand their own path. 

I often talk about 'the plateau of mediocrity' in those talks. Because, for the longest time, that's where I was stuck on. I kept making the same pretty picture over and over again, but I never really moved on. 

A lot of photographers are stuck on that plateau and they don't even know it exists. Look around you, landscape photography magazines are full of these pretty pictures of scenes we've seen a million times before. Do we really need to see any more photos of the slot canyons in Utah or maybe a little more local for me, Vermillion Lakes and Mount Rundle?! It is all the same pre-chewed material photographed with a different camera and not a different vision. 

For most photographers, that plateau is where they will happily spend their entire careers on. It is a safe haven. 'Safe' being the keyword here. But for a few of us, that plateau feels wrong. It feels 'flat'. It feels like a place where no progress can and will be made. EVER! 

The more I matured, the less that plateau felt like a place I wanted to be spending my career on. And over time the work I produced on that plateau did not internally satisfy me anymore. As a result I wanted to throw all of my work away and start all over. And more often than none the 'why the heck am I doing this for?'-question popped in my mind. 

If this sounds familiar, do read on.

That's when I realized that I was artistically growing. So what the heck was going on?! 

Sally Mann said it best. “There’s always a time in any series of work where you get to a certain point and your work is going steadily and each picture is better than the next, and then you sort of level off and that’s when you realize that it’s not that each picture is better then the next, it’s that each picture up’s the ante. And that every time you take one good picture, the next one has got to be better.” 

Bingo! That was exactly the core of what I was dealing with. 

Back then, I did start all over. I stopped photographing in colour and went back to my b&w roots. But a year later that came to a grinding halt as well. Digital b&w photography for me was not the answer. For 4 months I didn't take a single photo. I was trying to figure this out. I was so sure about the b&w part that I couldn't figure out why I was still dissatisfied with my work. 

That's when it hit me. The solution to continue the long and steep climb of progress for me was to return full time to film. 

You're done digital! Over and out.

As by magic I was inspired and motivated again. I just realized the date was June 2012. Since then I stepped up my game and went from medium to large format photography but that didn't change a thing about my work and more importantly why I do what I do. 

Right now, I am in a happy place. I'm making work that I am confident in. Not because it shows superficial scenic beauty. But because it shows a portrait of my soul. It shows everyone who I am. 

So if you feel like you're stuck or not satisfied anymore by your work. Just know, feeling that, is an important step to become a better artist. Embrace it! Use those feelings and try to translate that in meaningful, thoughtful and intelligent photographs. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

The road to mastery

There is a world of opportunity out there. A phrase that people (often already successful people) use all the time. A world of opportunity. What exactly does that mean? And how does an opportunity – a possibility – transform into an actual achievement?

Our journey as photographers is a never ending one. And opportunities or (little) achievements are everywhere, if you know where to look. Achievements that seem small at first. Maybe even things you would not think of as something you would be proud of. The more you progress as an artist, the bigger those strides you are taking, will seem to the outside world.

Let me explain.

Let's take the concept of 'constant learning' for example. Learning is a process and not an event. Let's get that straight. And more importantly, it is a never ending process. Learning also means enduring the uncertainty of not knowing.

The moment you start to learn something new, it naturally starts out as feeling awkward. You feel self-conscious. Clumsy. And that's totally OK! And then – as you continue – as you persist and keep trying and practicing, you will see, what started out as awkward, starts to transform into something more comfortable. Things will flow form uncertain, to certain. From untried to repetitive. From novel to familiar, perhaps maybe even comfortable or dare I say, masterful.

"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work". Thomas Edison.

When you are doing the hard work, you'll see that you are encouraging yourself to go through change, as your creative abilities grow. That is the key! And you will grow even more when you let go of outdated views of the world (or even of yourself). By doing so you are encouraging yourself to seek out new possibilities and more new experiences. Experiences that will let you feel that novel feeling again. Experiences that again will migrate to feelings of familiarity, from awkward to routine, from uncertain to certain. It is really a never ending viscous circle.
If you take time to consider deeply how you have already accomplished things of importance in your photographic career, you will discover that you can easily remember the skills you've learned to get to where you are today. That IS an achievement you should be proud of! But beware, it is easy to overstate the importance of that, it is even easier to understate all that you are and all that you are becoming.

As a result we can actually state the following. As our awareness of this continuous process grows, and our acceptance grows that those awkward, self-conscious moments are simply a starting point – a stepping stone on the path to greater skill and an inevitable first step on the road to mastery – you will get stronger in the ability to set aside concern and stay focused on the next step towards comfort. Your confidence will build. Knowing that, makes it really easy to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. To get secure with the feeling of uncertainty and even insecurity.

You can in turn learn to manage those feelings (of uncertainty) and learn to set aside self doubt. All the while knowing that they are normal reactions to what is new or what seems challenging at first. The world of opportunity opens up to someone who is willing to let this inward change – from awkward to comfortable – to happen.

As you progress in your career, your ability to keep moving forward becomes stronger. And confidence in yourself keeps growing, as you discover that what used to be overwhelming, now seems pretty mundane. Just another part of your career to move through and handle with confidence.

The human mind functions best when it has a mid range amount of stimulation. If we get too much coming at us, too much information, too many demands, we get stressed. Being on overload. Then all we want to do is slow things down. Get away. Relax. But on the other hand, too little stimulation – if we get not enough going on to hold our interest or attention – we get bored. And boredom is a spur to go get some action. How important is it to take action and seek out enough novelty to keep your mind focused and sharp? It's different for every single one of us.

"Nothing endures but change." Heraclitus.

What you can feel good about, are the obvious big leaps in your own work. There is a moment of realization – of insight – (the aha-moment some people call it) when suddenly something becomes clear. It is not a moment you can force. It's not a moment you can produce at will. It is a moment you discover through self reflection. And in the end, those moments, as few and far between, will make big differences in your work, if you know when to react to them. For me for example it was the insight that colour photography was not for me (because I sucked at it) and that I had to go back to my B&W roots.

I wonder what some of your aha-moments were. I really don't know, but you do. You probably have seen such moments in ways that you would define as solid and strong turning points in your careers. They can empower you to do better work.

As artists we should continually develop a greater depth of understanding our surroundings and not necessarily a better understanding of technique. We should develop a deeper acceptance for the very human condition of complexity and simplicity, and what it means to define complex problems in simpler terms. Photography can be a great medium for that. Minimalism is a great example of that exact idea. Minimalist photographers are always walking that fine line of how deep is deep enough and how simple, is simple enough.

What you've discovered about your strengths and skills is essentially the foundation of what you are building on as you continue to grow as an artist. I often explain it as if our careers were a house of cards. In the beginning we have a very narrow foundation to work from. But as we grow, or house 'fans out' towards the top. At one point, our foundation becomes unstable because it is simply too small to carry all the weight of new knowledge. That's when you know you've reached a crossroad. I often see people clinging on to this state for years and never move forward, because they are afraid of change. I say, let your house of cards crash down, and when it does, look closely at your cards. What cards are important to you now? Place those in your new foundation and start building your new house of knowledge back up. It will fan out again. And it will – if you let it – crash down, yet again, and again, and again. Let that happen. Your foundation will become stronger and wider if you let it. This whole cycle is part of that same, never ending learning circle.

Remember that!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Things I will never apologize for (and you shouldn't either)

In my last 'serious' post I wrote about how social media has sucked the life out of quality photography. That post is still making waves in the social media sphere. A lot of people were with me on this, and got the overall message. Some said I was stuck in the past and that I should 'adapt or die'. A few of them went even further and said I should apologize for writing that post.

That got me thinking.
Here's a list of things I (and you as well) should never apologize for. Ever!

So sit back, relax, buckle up and hold on! This ride is going to get bumpy!

1. I will never apologize for being inexperienced  
We all have to start somewhere. (see next step). Ignorance is acceptable. Staying it, is stupid. Educate yourself and if you can and dare, others as well. I love film photography for example. It's just my thing. It feels good doing it. But I know that I have a long way to go. I'm dedicated to a life long learning experience. I'm cool with that.

2. I will never apologize for asking for help

Don't be afraid or proud to ask your friends, and/or industry peers for help. We are all in this together. You would be amazed how many of them will write you back and offer to help you out or give you their opinion. Straight up. No strings attached. If someone is not reacting to your emails, leave them in your trail of dust. But remember it's not a one way street. If somebody is asking you for help, help them out to the best of your abilities.

3. I will never apologize for who I am or for what I believe in
Everybody is entitled to their opinions and beliefs. Let nobody take that away from you. If it doesn't stroke with their beliefs and opinions then tough luck. Staying quiet will eventually wear you down. Put it out there.

4. I will never apologize for sticking to my values
If people can't handle what I consider to be important values then that's too bad. It's their problem. Not mine.

5. I will never apologize for calling BS on someone
If nobody is willing to call it, I'll call it. I don't have a problem with that. Do you? Then that's too bad. You see, if we all stare at each other and whisper what we want to say behind closed doors, then nothing gets done.

6. I will never apologize for being passionate, obsessive and enthusiastic about photography
The passion for photography is what drives me hard these days. I've never been so passionate about anything else before in my life. It's a weird thing. But I'm loving every minute of it.

7. I will never apologize for loosing myself in research
I love research and can be absorbed by it rather quickly. For days on end. SO what? 

8. I will never apologize for being overly critical
Take it with a grain of salt internet. Are you ready to stir the pot? Then great. That's how we move forward. If not, the defriend/uncircle/unfollow button is at the top. Click it. Thanks! Glad we sorted that out.

9. I will never apologize for telling an unpopular truth
Truth is and can be a very complex thing. It is usually not all rosy either. Deal with it princes and listen up. Speaking the truth is never a sin. Never be afraid to speak the truth. Point out flaws, lies and injustices. On the other hand be afraid of the ones that never speak up. They're the ones that are afraid of conflict. They just want to be liked by everybody. Poor little things.

10. I will never apologize for breaking a rule that isn't a rule
Be a rule breaker! It's exciting. Don't be afraid to break unwritten/secret rules either (e.g. in my case the list of things I had to adhere to on the internet. Pushed on to me by the big, popular and all mighty mob called 'social influencers'). The internet has no boundaries people, and very little laws. Never let anyone tell you what to do. Push the 'accepted' boundaries outward and then turn it up to 11. Sit back and see what happens.

11. I will never apologize for who I am
I might come on as strong, harsh and very blunt sometimes, but I won't apologize for it. It's not my problem. It is you that is making a problem out of it. By you, I mean the people that claim to be holier than Jesus on the internet. Tip: If people seem like they never do anything wrong, don't trust them. It's all PR marketing! I rather be ME – with my shortcomings – and be proud of them, than insincerely fake my way through life to make a buck or two here and there.

12. I will never apologize for telling you how I feel, for speaking my mind, standing up for something I believe in or expressing myself
Honesty makes those 'perfect' people (see previous point) uncomfortable. Good! Let's – for instance – make some more people uncomfortable with this post. Yes I mean you, you internet celebs that claim to be leading perfect lives covered with happiness and positivity. Rrrrrrright. Let's get things straight here. I will be the first to claim my life isn't perfect. And I am proud of it! Be human. Have your flaws.

13. I will never apologize for my art

I will never EVER apologize for the art I am making. That would beat all purpose out of making art. All art could and maybe should be a narrative on social opinions, beliefs and issues. Search for that angle where your art makes a difference.

14. I will never apologize for being a landscape photographer
I hear so many people say 'I'm just a landscape photographer'. Never be afraid to tell people what you do! If all else fails, practice your introduction in front of your mirror until it is a natural thing to say. 'Hi my name is Oliver and I am an artist specializing in traditional black and white landscape photography.' Own it!

15. I will never apologize for my portfolio

It might not be to everyone's taste, but that's no reason to apologize for it. If you start a portfolio review with apologizing for it, your a dead duck. Or you apologize for the quality a certain photo lacks, then why is it in your portfolio in the first place?

16. I will never apologize for disagreeing with someone or something
– If we would all like the same stuff, we would live in a very boring world (and we would all drive grey cars). I have no problem in calling you out if need be. That might not be the most popular way to handle a disagreement, but I'm European. What can I say. We hate wasting time sugarcoating stuff and fluffing it up to make sure we don't offend anyone. Don't be such a fragile flower.  Grow some thorns. 

17. I will never apologize for getting something off my chest
The longer you keep issues on the inside, the more those same issues will eat away at your soul. Get it off your chest. Even if it offends people (see previous). Too bad. Deal with it. Leave a comment below.

18. I will never apologize for dreaming big

Have goals in mind and stick to them. Have 5-10 little goals you accomplish every year. All those little goals add up in the end. But also, have a big end goal in mind and spend every free minute of your time working to get there.

19. I will never apologize for making a decision from the heart

That's where your truth lives. Use it. Use it in your art! Don't think about it, feel it!

20. I will never apologize for saying NO to something

I will never be too proud to say no to something or someone. If you do, you'll feel good afterwards.

21. I will never apologize for setting high quality standards
"Turn up the good, turn down the suck!" (Bonus points for whoever knows what Canadian classic movie this comes from). Crank that button hard!

22. I will never apologize for thinking something was possible nor will I apologize for failing
Fail. Fail often. Fail hard! Crash and burn. Lessons learned. Done deal. Move on. Grow! Think of your career as a house of cards. Let it crash down once in a while. Step back and evaluate. Then pick your strong cards up first and rebuild your foundation. Continue building and learning until you have to let it crash down again. It is the normal circle of being an artist.

23. I will never apologize for complaining about something

If everyone is assuming somebody is going to say something, nobody will ever say anything. So file that complaint! Put it out there. So others can learn from your remarks. 

24. I will never apologize for my online presence
Face it, these days we are all our own marketing brand. Not everybody is fluent in speaking the language of the intrawebs. And not everyone is a marketeer. That is OK. Be yourself and it will sort itself out in the end. For example, not everyone will like my brand or the ideas and beliefs I have about photography. And that's OK too. If everybody did like who I am, then I was definitely doing something wrong.

25. I will never apologize for sometimes swearing like a sailor
Yes I know. I swear. I swear a lot. Cursing is something I will do when I f*cking feel like it. It ads a little spice to the conversation. Damnit. I couldn't live without them. (unless there's little kids around)

26. I will never apologize for my obsession for perfection

I like to get things as perfect as possible and it will usually take longer then expected. Get it right! First time around. No need to apologize for that. Sometimes you only get one chance. Nail it! It's better than proudly show mediocre presented work any day of the week.

27. I will never apologize for what I need nor my pricing

Everybody deserves to be compensated for what they do. Research your competitors. And when someone asks about your pricing, speak up and confidently state your price. If you are not in their price range, then find clients that fit in your price range. Not the other way around. You can't please everybody. Unless they are friends. Work with your friends to get them the best deal possible.

28. I will never apologize for being selfish

I will let you know when I need a dose of me-time.

29. I will never apologize for leaving home to chase my dreams

This one is pretty obvious and it is the truth. We have so many more opportunities here in Canada then back home, in Belgium. I have zero regrets for moving. Was it hard to leave friends and family behind? Sure it was. Was it worth it? Heck yeah! 

30. I will never apologize for my taste (or lack of)
Hey I like gas guzzling V8 muscle cars and NASCAR races on Sundays! So what?

Sure people will judge me (again) for writing this post. But I won't apologize for it. I am myself on this blog. And I am sharing what I think is important. I believe there is an epidemic in this world today for apologizing for everything we do. I wonder why. Because we don't want to offend people? Is that it? Nothing is less attractive then a person who says sorry all the time. Own it!

"It is a good rule in life never to apologize. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them." – P. G. Wodehouse