One of these days I’m going to get back into shape. Then I’m going to fly to Nepal. Then I’m going to hire a Sherpa to guide me on an arduous journey up into the highest reaches of the Himalayas. Along the way he’ll teach me his language, as well as the customs of his people. By the time we arrive at the summit, we will have saved each others’ lives several times, binding our fates together for all eternity. Sitting atop the apex of the world (beneath a sign that says, “No Flash Photography Allowed”) will be a shriveled old man with a long beard who will explain to me the sorcery and wonder behind the algorithm that determines what’s going to show up as a “suggested post” on my Facebook news feed.
As a photographer and a photography teacher I am often asked the question, “What makes a good photo?” It seems like a simple enough question, right? Any one of us could wax both practical and philosophical over what makes a good– or even great– photo. We could go on and on for hours about composition, lighting, exposure, and vision. We would all most likely offer similar-yet-different answers to a question whose very nature can’t be pinned down– and that’s a good thing. Regardless of whether you view photography as art, craft, trade, or even science, the fact that we all see it so differently is, at its core, one of the things that makes it so damn interesting.
Life if full of all kinds of debates, both practical and philosophical. Chocolate or vanilla? Dogs or cats? Paper or plastic? Window or aisle? Jazz or blues? The list goes on. Most don’t really have a definitive answer, because life without choices can get pretty boring pretty fast. The Great Debates rage on, though, throughout the photography industry as well, covering everything from camera brands and strap style to memory cards and lenses. It’s the lens debate, though, that I find particularly interesting. I’m not talking about Canon vs. Nikon or Sigma vs. Tamron. I’m talking about Zooms vs. Primes.
A few months ago, a friend of mine was scrolling through a photography website when he saw something that made him jump out of his chair. There on the screen was a photo of his 6-year-old daughter– sitting on the grass under a stunning summer sky in her beautiful pink dress, having a tea party with her stuffed animals and three kittens. There were several problems with the photo. As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, my friend had not taken or posted this particular photo of his daughter. In his original photo, the sky was overcast, the dress was yellow, and his daughter– who is actually dangerously allergic to cats– was enjoying a quiet moment alone. More importantly, however, the person who created this composite had never asked for permission to use the original. Needless to say, my friend was more than a little pissed off and immediately set to the task of tracking down the photographer and “politely asking” that the image be taken down immediately. It took a while, but the photographer eventually complied.
I typed the title for this article hours ago. After typing it, I spent an hour answering emails, having a snack, watching a little TV, and checking up on friends and family in Israel. For a full hour after all of that, I stared at a blinking cursor. Taunting me. Vexing me. Daring me to write something meaningful. My wife just came into the office to see if I needed anything. She read the title from over my shoulder and asked, “Don’t you mean the photo you regret NOT taking?”
It’s a valid question. After all, in a world where I at least have my iPhone with me all the time, there is always a camera at hand. It may not always be a perfect shot, but I shouldn’t have too many regrets about photos not taken. “No, the title is right. It’s about the photo I regret taking.”
“This should be interesting,” she said, pulling up a chair. “Tell me about it.”
I barricaded myself in my office this past weekend, hoping to face off against one of my demons. I fought off the usual distractions. No calls or email. No Facebook or Twitter. No YouTube, memes, or cat videos. I was a man on a mission and nothing was going to stop me. If this demon was to be truly be expelled from this dimension, it would take all of my concentration. After all, it’s not every day you admit to yourself that your internet favorites/bookmarks are glaringly and alarmingly out of control. I felt pretty good when I sat down and launched my browser. Admitting you have a problem is the first step, right? If you’re anything like I am, your favorites list is filled with links to articles and websites that grabbed your interest when you really didn’t have the time to fully explore them. With one well-intentioned click of the mouse I’d been adding mountains to my digital clutter on a daily basis. When I clicked on Firefox’s bookmarks icon, I was greeted by literally hundreds of entries– relatively few of which had actually been organized into folders.
Way back in September, I wrote an article about The Power of a Print. I talked a bit about many of the things we do with our images these days– from editing and processing to sharing and blogging. What we hardly every do anymore, I pointed out, is actually print them. I’m not talking about the work we do for our clients. They’ve hired us to create those images, at least some of which almost always get printed. When it comes to the images we capture for ourselves, however, printing hardly ever seems to be at the top of our priority list. How many truly stunning images are living inside your computer, external hard drives, or even your phone? What sort of joy or sense of accomplishment are they bringing you from the deep, dark depths of their binary existence? I’m not going to rehash that whole post here (although I do encourage you to read it), nor am I here to lament the terabytes of unprinted pixels in the world. I received an email from a reader the other day asking me if I could clarify a few points for him on how to resize images for print. Rather than just dash off a quick reply, I decided to address it here.
It’s been a while since I’ve received “The E-Mail,” so I guess it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise when it came today. I must have been living a charmed life, because it hadn’t reared its ugly head in quite a while. Yet there it was. Staring me in the face. Cursor blinking in the “reply” box as I contemplated my impending level of sarcasm. Sometimes it’s actually a phone call. Occasionally they come right out and ask in person. More often than not, though, it’s an email. I prefer the emails because they help mask my frustration in a way that actual conversations can’t. You know the email I’m talking about. Names and locations have been changed for obvious reasons.
“…If you’re saying in your head, ‘Oh, I’ll just fix that later in Photoshop,” stop what you’re doing and slap yourself as hard as you can.” –Zack Arias
If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while, you know that I’m a huge proponent of getting it right in the camera. Exposure, lighting, composition– all of it. As I tell my students, Photoshop is a tool, not a crutch. A bad photo is a bad photo, and no amount of post processing is going to miraculously turn it into a good photo. A good photo can very often be improved with a few well-placed tweaks and adjustments, but it’s just as easy to kill a perfectly fine photograph by going overboard in Photoshop. Still, though, photo editing is a fact of life and I think there are certain essential Photoshop skills that every photographer should know.
It’s confession time. I’ve been struggling lately with my creativity. The client work is fine. It’s the personal work– the stuff that’s supposed to satisfy my soul between the paid gigs– that’s taken a dip. I have a few theories, but a funk is a funk and sometimes the harder you try pushing through it the deeper it gets. Chances are I’m just over-thinking it. After all, we’re talking about art, right? You’re supposed to feel it, not think it.