Photo Notes A place to talk about making images.

May 30, 2010

Terra Incognita

Filed under: Photographic Education,Photography Communication — John Siskin @ 12:57 pm

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Film solarization

Some years ago a friend, who had moved from making photographs to making ceramics, explained that ceramics is a mature art form. He meant that, after thousands of years of making ceramics, everything that could be done had been done. Photography is still changing because, in part, the technology is still changing. The interaction between light, subject and sensor or film is still not completely mapped out. I’ve included a couple of my favorite experimental images this week.

As artists we approach the whole territory in different ways. A person can choose to make images by using craft, the tools of the known territory. These skills can enable the artist to produce commercial art and fine art. The idea is to map the unknown by starting from the known and using the known tools. Personally I am comfortable with this approach. The alternative is to begin and try to understand the territory from the inside. This is a more intuitive, less empirical, approach to the unknown. Clearly there are people who work well in this way, but it is difficult. There will be a lot of repetition and failure. Really very few artists have the strength to endure this method. Yet many people try it, often becoming quite frustrated.

One of the reasons that people want to work intuitively is that photography has a large intellectual component compared to other arts. For instance the harp is a very simple instrument: you pluck a string and you hear a tone. Assuming the harp is in tune the next time you pluck the string you will get the same tone. A concert harp will have pedals to control the how long the note sustains. A camera has more complex choices than a harp. To carry the analogy a little further, both tools belong to larger fields of understanding: music and imaging. Both fields have a tremendous amount of experience and information about what makes good art. But photography, as a small part of imaging generally, also has a huge amount of technical information about capturing an image. Certainly there are musical instruments that have this kind of technical component, but not the harp.

Made with an early Leaf back

The harp, indeed any musical instrument, requires practice so that you can translate musical ideas into the performance of music. Certainly the camera also requires practice. In both photography and music one of the advantages of practice is that it allows you to work more intuitively, translating ideas into music or images quickly and confidently. A big part of what a music teacher does is to guide your practice. Photography requires more than practice: you need to develop a personal map of the known territory. While you can create without the map there will be a lot of frustration. Fortunately there are many good maps in books and classes available.

Personally after more that thirty-five years of active photography I am still refining my map. And I am still walking on trails I haven’t traveled before.

You can see some of the territory I’ve mapped out: you can read my articles here and pre-order my book here. If you would like to see some more of my map please consider taking one of my classes.

An Introduction to Photographic Lighting

Portrait Lighting on Location and in the Studio

Getting Started In Commercial Photography

May 20, 2010

A Mixed Bag

Filed under: Commercial Photography — John Siskin @ 5:23 pm

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A few ideas and images I thought I might share. The photos are from cameras I built, check out the links and this one as well:

Shot with the super wide camera I built.

I like generators better than battery packs. They weigh more, but will work for hours on a tank of gas. Easy to refill. They don’t recycle slower as the day goes on. You can get a two-stroke generator for about $100.00 at Home Depot.

The more advertising there is in your cases the more likely they are to be stolen, whether it is advertising for you or the case manufacturer. It is always best to keep a low profile. Military surplus cases can be very good. Don’t pack anything you can’t lift.

If you are going to do any complex lighting find a way to tether your camera to a laptop. There is just no way to really evaluate the details of your image on the back of the camera. Viewing size matters.

Keep model releases in your camera bag.

Keep a chain-pod and a shoe cover in the bag as well. You never know.

You can always crop into an image, but you can’t create more space around the image, so leave a little room.

If you’re going to shoot kids keep cheap toys around to give them. Bribery is your best way of motivating children. Come to think of it, it works on adults as well.

Remember to thank people, especially assistants.

Remember the Odd Couple? Felix Unger was a photographer. It is important to be obsessed with detail; it is your job.

Shoot in raw. Always.

Learn to pre-visualize. Look at people and things and decide how you would light them. Imagine your sensor is an empty canvas, what do you want to put in it?

If you don’t practice you won’t be able to shoot well. Musicians practice. Masters of martial arts practice. You need to practice seeing, which you can do without a camera, but you also need to practice technique which requires any equipment you plan on using. Lighting requires more practice than most aspects of photography.

You might even consider taking a class, perhaps one of mine?

An Introduction to Photographic Lighting

Portrait Lighting on Location and in the Studio

Getting Started In Commercial Photography

May 11, 2010

Learning Photography?

Filed under: Photographic Education — John Siskin @ 12:51 am

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Done with a u-shaped curve.

I have discussed the idea that photography is a language in the past, back at the beginning of my blog. I have also written about the difference between taking and making pictures. Making pictures is about control and taking pictures is about finding images. Both are important skills. I did a couple of blog entries about basic skills for a photographer. This week I wanted to talk about learning to make pictures. I’m adding a few shots, just to keep it interesting.

I have been a photo teacher for a long time, something like twenty years. Before I discuss what others are doing , I have to say a few things about how I learned photography and what I hope to do. My education has been self-guided and guided by the jobs I’ve had. I was very fortunate to work for a commercial photographer, Steve Berman,when I was sixteen. I was particularly fortunate that he was an instructor at Art Center College. I was also fortunate to work at Russ’ Camera in Santa Barbara when I went to university. Of course both these jobs were back in the ‘70ies, so they aren’t on my resume anymore. You can see a current copy of my resume here, this includes a list of publications and shows. I’ve included this link because it is my goal to do more teaching, so I want to display my experience. If you need to consult an experienced photographer, or you would like to have a photographer teach or guide a workshop please contact me. Of course you can take my classes at
An Introduction to Photographic Lighting
Portrait Lighting on Location and in the Studio
Getting Started in Commercial Photography

Self-Guided Learning: This is how I’ve learned photography. I don’t call it self-taught because, with the exception of William Henry Fox Talbot,  no one started from scratch and invented everything. You learn from sources that you find or seek out. The biggest problem with learning this way is that you never know what you still need to learn. There is no graduation. I am still learning new things, in part that is because of the technical changes in photography, but is also because I’m still fascinated by photography. You clearly learn things you don’t need, and you learn a lot of things the hard way, by making mistakes. If you’re going to learn this way it helps to be a good reader.


Photo College: I have met some very accomplished photographers who went to photo college. The good news is that somebody packages the information into a several year long course of study. One hopes that the graduates are expert craftspeople as well as creative individuals. I think that anyone who wants to evaluate a school should be evaluating the instructors first. If the staff members that teach commercial photography aren’t doing commercial photography, what can they know? If the people teaching fine art don’t exhibit regularly how would you know if you want to study with them? This is an expensive way to learn, but if the teachers are good, it might be a good value.
On-Line Classes: I teach on line, so I might have a bias. I also work very hard to do good classes. I send out a lot of e-mail in addition to the lessons. I try to respond to my students very quickly. I also call as many students as I can each session. An on line class can be personal. Still you have to be willing to do a lot of reading. But you can ask questions and get good feedback on your work. Classes are reasonably priced, you don’t need to travel, and they fit into any schedule. Check out

Lecture: Some guy stands there and talks. This might be good for learning about calculus, not so good for photography.
Illustrated Lecture: Slides or other images added to a lecture. Depending on the image and the speaker this can be really good. I have been to illustrated lectures that really improved my photography. I have also taken some naps.

Lecture/Demonstration: This is my favorite thing to go to, might be my favorite way to teach. Instructor comes in with gear and shows you how to set-up and how to do the project. He/she explains what is happening and why. The student should be able to examine the results and look at the gear. A good demonstration should take the mystery out of the subject under discussion.

Workshop: Lets get this straight: a workshop is where the participant actually makes images or other projects in the workshop. Not the instructor, the participant. So, when I teach a cyanotype workshop, the students coat paper, expose paper and process paper. I’ve seen workshops offered where the student sat in a chair and watched. This is not enough. In a landscape photography workshop landscape should be photographed, with the instructor there to help.

I alluded to this above, but you should check out an instructor. There are a lot of ways to evaluate an instructor, but I would suggest look at what they’ve published. Of course you should see a lot of good images, especially of the type you want to make. You should also look for articles and books. If a photographer can create good articles it means that they might be organized enough to do be a good teacher. It will also enable you to decide if you’re interested in the subjects that the instructor is expert in. Here’s a link to some of my articles, and my first book is coming out in November. Know anybody who needs a workshop?
Thanks, John

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