Photo Notes

August 28, 2010

Art and Craft

Filed under: Looking at Photographs,Photographic Education,Uncategorized — John Siskin @ 5:40 pm

When I was in college I used to have arguments with my roommate about whether or not photography is an art. Neither of us were armed with the history of this argument, so no direct hits were scored. If you find this argument interesting you might want to study Alfred Stieglitz, who argued the topic with the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Today, as I have in the past, I want to discuss the craft of photography. Craft is something you can discuss in a more objective way than art. I don’t think I would want an artist to frame my house, but I would want good craftspeople framing my house if I was building one. One of the key aspects of good craft is that it can perform to a plan; art often doesn’t do that.
One of my favorite artists is Man Ray. When I first saw reproductions of his work I thought he had great ideas and poor craft. Over the years I bought better quality books and saw original work. I realized that I had been wrong. He was a consummate craftsman. What I didn’t see at first was quality because of poor reproductions, and the experimental nature of his images. Experimentation allows an artist to walk into the unknown. Continued experimentation allows the artist to map the area. The map really allows the artist to add craft to the experiments. For instance Man Ray’s work with solarization is the best I have ever seen. There are many images that I can’t explain, because I don’t have that craft.
I teach classes at BetterPhoto.com, as many who read this blog regularly know. I am not trying to teach art. I try to teach craft, and frankly I am often frustrated. In order for a person to learn craft they must practice, build their own map. In one of my classes: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting, I tell people how to build a kind of a lighting laboratory. They can run their own experiments in this environment. I can tell when a student has really experimented and when they just did a shot. I wish that I could find a way to get more students to do more experiments; there is so much to learn. I know that many people present lighting as do this and this and you’ll get great results. I call this cookie-cutter lighting. If you are going to be good you need your own map. You need to know how to build a custom environment for each subject. This is the attitude of a good craftsperson and an artist.
The greatest advantages of digital photography are in this area of practice and mapping. A digital camera will allow you to practice for free; you couldn’t do that with film. Your results from digital are available instantly, and film wouldn’t do that either. So we should be seeing more good craftspeople ant ever before.
I wanted to add something from the book on interior photography I’m working on. I think it also has bearing on this discussion.
“When I started doing photography I thought there was a rule book. Of course I didn’t have a copy of the rules, and I didn’t know where to get a copy. Frankly I had the same idea about things other than photography. I went to school for a long time, they taught me a lot of rules, mostly about things that didn’t matter. There are supposed to be a lot of right ways to do things in photography, and there are. But they are the right way to do a particular thing for a particular reason. So in this chapter we’ll start with a picture that is taken from a wrong angle. The client is very happy with, I’m very happy with it, in fact I use it on some of my business cards.


This is a picture of the same doorway taken from a more usual angle. Both are good pictures, but one is much more dramatic.”


I teach a class in commercial photography , as well as classes in lighting and portraiture at BetterPhoto.com. I hope you will check out the classes soon. My first book: Understanding and Controlling Strobe Lighting: A Guide for Digital Photographers will be published in the fall you can pre-order it. I have a new magazine article coming out in September about strobe power. You can see it in Photo Technique Magazine.
Thanks, John

August 22, 2010

Awareness, Knowledge and Experience

Filed under: Photographic Education — John Siskin @ 7:55 pm

Shot 0

According to dashboard this is the fiftieth issue of this blog. Imagine my overwhelming enthusiasm, or not. Of course the problem with blogging is that you never know if anyone is reading. Which is related to problems with photography and teaching: is there anyone out there? I was talking to a paper conservator this week, she works on photographs and illuminated documents and works on paper, really cool stuff. Although she has done a lot of teaching, or maybe because she has done so much teaching, she is really disillusioned with students. I often have a similar problem with my classes. Of course the problem is not as visible, because I teach on-line. So I don’t see students falling asleep. But I do see assignments that are poorly done, and I notice students who just don’t respond.

Shot 1

Shot 2

I

I_think it is helpful to break learning down into three levels. The first is awareness. If I take a class or read an article the first thing I ask myself about information is: will I use this? I may find out about a fabulous technique, but I have no intention to use it anytime soon. For instance there are lots of things in Photoshop that are really great, but of no use for my work. The same thing is true about methods of alternative printing. I am aware of gravure printing, but I have no plans to do it. When I encounter information for something I’m aware of my first concern is does it change my view of the usefulness of this process or tool. It is pretty rare that a new piece of information changes my evaluation of something. The second level is knowledge, at this level I’ve decided that I want and NEED to know about something. To get the knowledge. I will pay attention, maybe take notes. Certainly I will ask questions. One of the good parts of on-line classes is that you can ask questions at any time, even three a.m. Knowledge is a very important possession for any human: people are often judged by their knowledge.

Shot 3

With many sorts of things knowledge is enough. So if you have knowledge of plant biology that may be all you need to teach plant biology. However, with most things it isn’t enough. For instance knowledge of plant biology probably isn’t enough to be a profitable farmer. Would you like to fly in a plane with a pilot who just has knowledge of flying a plane? The most important level of

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knowing, for most things, is experience. That is especially true for photography. It is very hard for people to get this idea, because the manufacturers go to great lengths to tell you it is a matter of pushing buttons. There may be an automatic feature on you camera and strobes that will allow you to balance two dedicated strobes, but doesn’t it automatically place these strobes. Or tell you how to create the quality of light you want. It only helps with quantity of light.
I provide my students with a plan for a lighting laboratory. It costs about $20. You can begin to get experience in this

Shot 5

environment: learning practical things about quality and placement. It saddens me that most of my students either don’t use the lab, or use it just enough to do a minimum level assignment. Just like you can’t achieve mastery of flight without practice, you really won’t become a master of light without practice. There is no button to push to make good light. Consider another analogy I use: playing music. Playing a keyboard instrument is not that different from typing, you start by knowing which key makes a note or a letter. I wouldn’t pay to listen to the music of a pianist who knows where the notes are, but I would pay to listen to a pianist with experience, subtlety and grace.
This week I attached shots that show the evolution of a recent image. Shot 0 is the first capture. Keep in mind that I had already set up a couple of lights. In shots 1 and 2, I refined the placement of the lights and changed some aspects of the room. Shot three is the final capture. Shot 4 shows the changes made in Adobe RAW and shot 5 is the final image after work in Photoshop. You can click on shot 5 for a larger image.
I teach a class in commercial photography , as well as classes in lighting and portraiture at BetterPhoto.com. I hope you will check out the classes soon. My first book: Understanding and Controlling Strobe Lighting: A Guide for Digital Photographers will be published in the fall you can pre-order it. I have a new magazine article coming out in September about strobe power. You can see it in Photo Technique Magazine.
Thanks, John
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August 16, 2010

Understanding New Equipment

Filed under: Architectural Lighting — John Siskin @ 2:33 pm

Last week I was testing some new equipment. If you don’t know what it does I’m going to be able to use it effectively. Being able to predict and control your results is critical to being a good photographer. You need to know what your actual results are in order to do that. A pro may not take the best picture of a subject, but a pro had better always take a really excellent picture of the subject. For instance I have been at friends’ weddings, not as a shooter but as a friend. There are times when I took a picture the bride liked best, but I didn’t take a picture of the bride and groom and the bride’s mother, nor of the bride and groom and the ring bearer and so on and on and on. Shooting the event, if that is your job, means not one great shot but dozens of good shots. Shooting a home means, not a great shot of the living room, you should get that, but shots of every room. Anyway, I spent time on Saturday shooting with my new reflector, with a live subject. I included a couple of shots here. The device gives a very bright hard light, which mixes in an interesting way with softer light.
I’ve also been working on my next book, about lighting interiors. I really like the challenges of this kind of lighting. I’m going to attach a couple of paragraphs and a picture or two:

When you first look at a room, what forms your first impression? For some it will be color, and others will see the space, still others will be impressed by the contents. When you photograph a room you effectively miniaturize the room, so you need to pay attention to the original feel of a space, or you’ll lose the effect in the photograph. Architectural photography requires a great sensitivity to the feel of a place, in addition to an appreciation for detail.

Architectural photography is most often client driven photography, that is you find yourself working for a client. So in addition to your perception of the space you need to be concerned with the way the client sees the space, and what particularly interests the client. If your client is an interior designer he/she may see a room differently from a painting contractor. Consequently communication is one of the most important skills an architectural photographer will need. You will have to get your client to understand what can be done and what choices will need to be made.

I teach a class in commercial photography , as well as classes in lighting and portraiture at BetterPhoto.com. I hope you will check out the classes soon. My first book: Understanding and Controlling Strobe Lighting: A Guide for Digital Photographers will be published in the fall you can pre-order it. I have a new magazine article coming out in September about strobe power. You can see it in Photo Technique Magazine.
Thanks, John
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August 10, 2010

Suggestions for Better Photographs

Filed under: Basic Photo Technique — John Siskin @ 12:18 pm

A couple of days ago Jim Miotke asked me for some short suggestions for photographers, I think he asked the other instructors at BetterPhoto also. Here are a couple I gave him:
Practice, test and evaluate. You can’t use a technique effectively until you are really familiar with it.
Practice, musicians do. It is difficult to keep a skill fresh if you don’t use it.
Look at books and prints of classic photographs, monitors make everything the same size and don’t show the artists intent as well as an original print. You need to look at what others have done to train your eye. It improves seeing.
Edit ruthlessly. Don’t show work with problems.
So, the first two are ways of saying the same thing: you need to treat your photography as passionately as a musician treats music: not just working at it when there is an audience, but also when you’re alone. There are several things you should do: practice with camera features you don’t normally use. So one day I practiced with the microphone that holds makes image notes on my camera. I still don’t use it. But I do use the exposure compensation controls, and I can find them with the camera at my eye. I practice with my lights. I just got a special new reflector for my portable Normans. I have photographed the pattern of the reflector in several ways. In the next few days I’ll shoot a model with the reflector to see how it works in practice. I won’t wait until I need it to use it. One more way to practice: when your walking around think about how you would frame photographs, what would you put in and what would you leave out?
I think the third suggestion is even more important. Everybody looks at photographs every day. We are part of an on going visual discussion, but we don’t pay attention. Great photographers not only had a lot to say in the conversation, but they were conscious of how their photographs worked. So  I look at images by Edward Weston, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stiegiltz, Margaret Bourke-White, Annie Liebovitz, Ansel Adams, Linda Butler, Eliot Porter, Jerry Ulesmann…. I wish I could afford original prints from all these photographers, but I can afford their books. Books that were designed with the artists’ active participation, so that they represent the way the artist wants to present their work. Looking at great work gives me higher goals and improves the way I look at my subjects.
Finally, editing. People see your work as you show it to them. If you show an image with a long explanation about where your were, or how you took the picture, you will generally bore the audience. If an image pleases you, because of the circumstances of its creation that’s fine, but you shouldn’t show it unless it will really interest the audience. I’ve attached several images made with my microscopes. I hope you find them interesting.
I teach a class in commercial photography , as well as classes in lighting and portraiture at BetterPhoto.com. I hope you will check out the classes soon. My first book: Understanding and Controlling Strobe Lighting: A Guide for Digital Photographers will be published in the fall you can pre-order it. I have a new magazine article coming out in September about strobe power. You can see it in Photo Technique Magazine.
Thanks, John
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August 1, 2010

Photography For Business

Filed under: Commercial Photography — John Siskin @ 8:20 pm

All of my clients are businesses. I would estimate that three quarters of my students at BetterPhoto, or more, want to be professional photographers. The strange thing is that almost none of my students want to work for businesses. The business model that most photographers have involves working for individuals doing portraits and events, like weddings. There are a number of reasons that I don’t go after that business: first your clients don’t do much repeat business. Second your clients have limited budgets, because they aren’t making any money off your photographs. Third you do the same kind of jobs all the time.
Any business needs to communicate with its clients. While a family might want a new portrait every couple of years many businesses HAVE to make a catalog four times a year. Even if a business only has a dozen clients it needs to tell them things about capabilities and products. So I get more business from a business client then I would from any individual. I help businesses to show what they do, how they do it and what they can do; these are important stories for any business.
While any healthy business is very concerned about the bottom line, it is the bottom line not the actual expense that should concern them. So, while the costs of doing a printed catalog may be large, the potential profit is also large. Businesses value experience over price. They want to know that the provider has delivered in the past. Both these attitudes make my job more profitable. Since I have worked with a lot of different businesses I bring a lot of experience and capability to the table. If you are starting out you’ll need to offer attractive prices and perhaps prove yourself with a sample shoot. Still getting any new business client can be important for any photograph, so it is usually worth any extra effort.
My favorite part of commercial photography is the variety of work I can do for clients. I have experience in shooting, products, portraits and microscopy. If I shot for individuals I would rarely get to do more than portraits and events. I find shooting the same sorts of work is boring.
I use a variety of tools to find my clients. I think my favorite is html mail. You can see samples here and here . This gives me a way to show clients what I do in a professional way. Also I can help businesses to use the same tool. I also use direct mail and the phone, but not as much as I used to. You can see samples of html mail here and here.
I teach a class in commercial photography, as well as classes in lighting and portraiture at BetterPhoto.com. I hope you will check out the classes soon. My first book: Understanding and Controlling Strobe Lighting: A Guide for Digital Photographers will be published in the fall you can pre-order it. I have a new magazine article coming out in September about strobe power. You can see it in Photo Technique Magazine.

Thanks, John
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