learning to see
Have you ever struggled with figuring out how to see like your camera does? There are two parts to that, one of which I mentioned in my last post where I briefly discussed the coverage of your camera viewfinder. The other part is learning to see with different lenses on your camera. Conventional wisdom says that a 50mm lens is as close to how we see with our eyes and that is main reason why that lens is so popular. Figuring out what will be in your frame using other lenses takes lots of experimentation and noting the results.
One tip I found useful came from my photography mentor who once gave me an old slide frame. In the days of film, he used to carry around a slide frame without the film in his wallet. When he saw something interesting, he would use the frame to help decide what to put in his picture. The final photograph would depend on what he wanted to say with the image.
For beginners, the slide frame is a good little tool to help understand what would be in your frame if you used a wide angle lens versus a telephoto lens. Maybe today it is just as easy to slap on your 28-300mm zoom lens and just go make pictures. While that is true, using the slide frame has the added advantage of slowing down and thinking about what you want to say with your photograph. Sometimes I walk around without my camera and use the slide frame to do just that. You can also concentrate on learning to see rather than making pictures.
Here are a couple of photographs that illustrate how the slide frame works. This first photograph demonstrates what you might see with a zoom lens. The focus is on the details of the Japanese lantern and there is no other information in the frame. You can see that there many other things I could have included but did not. The second photograph demonstrates using a wider angle where the entire lantern is in the frame. Here we see more of the context in which the details exist i.e the lantern is part of a Japanese garden and the garden is near the water.
These two photographs also demonstrate a technique used in visual storytelling where you, as the storyteller, include photographs that establish for your audience the context without using words or narration to announce it. Typically a wide angle shot is used as an establishing shot but a detailed shot can also be used to establish the main idea of your photo essay or story. Knowing what you want to say will inform which photograph you make.
I’m a part of a group of photographers who meets regularly in Bangkok. We enjoy a good meal, talk about photography and make a group assignment – something we’re supposed to photograph in the coming month. This time around the assignment was “Red.”
The challenge on an assignment like this is not to photograph something red, but to make an interesting photo of red.
Red doesn’t even have to be the dominant color – because it elicits such strong emotions, just a tiny bit of red in the frame can have a profound affect on your picture. Think of the little girl in red in Steven Spielberg’s otherwise black and white film “Schindler’s List.”
I didn’t go up to Sangkhla Buri to photograph red. I was working on a story about a bridge up there. I spent a morning wandering around in the Mon community and I was seeing red everywhere I turned. Not usually in a big way, but in lots of little ways, like the in the photo of the woman sweeping the bridge.
It certainly helped that red is such a powerful color. Even in the photo of the hats, where the dominant color sort of an earth tone bamboo, which has red in it, the red in the hat on the left really pops. Red is to color photography what garlic is to chicken – it always makes it better. But you have to be careful not to use too much or it completely overwhelms the photo.
Summer, at least in the northern hemisphere, is nearly over, but it’s never to late to start a summer reading list.
Photography books don’t usually end up in the “going to the beach bag” and if these books don’t make your summer reading list, they’re perfect for those nights when you stay in. These are a few of the photography books I consider essential. They absolutely reflect my interest in photojournalism and street photography. There are no academic discussions on the merits of photography, like Susan Sontag’s “On Photography.” Nor are there picture books of cats, dogs or unicorns. My selection of photography books reflects the reality of the world around us.
Most of these books are available at Amazon but I am going to ask you, if you decide you’d like to spend time with one of them, rather than buy from Amazon scour your local used bookstores (most of them are out of print) or speciality book stores before you shop at Amazon.
Almost anything by William Albert Allard. Allard has been a National Geographic photographer for almost 50 years. He’s also a gifted writer. At one time or another, I’ve had most of his books but two I especially recommend are “The Photographic Essay” and “Portraits of America.” Portraits of America is a collection of his pictures made in America. There’s a timeless quality to the photos. The Photographic Essay is the only how-to book on the list, but it’s not so much a how to as it is an exploration of the thought process that goes into a photo essay.
Dancing on Fire by Maggie Steber. Documents her time covering the situation in Haiti in the 1980s. This pictures reflect a view of Haiti that’s not often seen. The brutality of the time is here but so is a Haiti of incredible spirituality and beauty. The pictures in this book will put you in Port au Prince circa 1986.
Telex Iran by Gilles Peress. All of the books on this list are a product of their time. But Telex Iran especially reflects the late 1970s. Iran was in a state of revolution, the Shah had fled and Ayatollah Khomeini was remaking Iran. This book is full of beautiful, sometimes jarring, black and white photos.
It also has the telegrams and telexes between Peress, his editors and magazines he was working for. His contact sheets, with editing notes are in here.
Now when we think of multimedia, we think of audio, video, maybe recordings of Skype calls or emails. But in 1979 none of that was possible. Telex Iran was the multimedia of its time, before multimedia was a thing.
This is also the most expensive book on this list. Used copies of Telex Iran go for about $140 (US). New copies for up to $850 and “collectible” copies (I don’t know how collectible differs from new) for an eye popping $2,800. If you stumble upon a copy of Telex Iran in your explorations of local bookstores snap it up.
Tim Page rocketed to fame for his coverage of the wars in Indochina.
He worked his way through mainland Asia (not as a photographer) and ended up in Laos where he started photographing the then “secret war.” After making an exclusive series of photos of an attempted coup in Vientiane, Laos, he was hired by United Press International, transferred to Saigon and, barely out of his teens, produced some of the most iconic photography of the war years.
This is the most straight forward photojournalism book on this list.
There aren’t many books on this list that can be credited with restarting a travel industry, but Cuba, by David Alan Harvey can. Harvey had virtually unlimited access to Cuba for a while in the late 1990s and created this masterpiece for National Geographic.
Americans are barred from freely traveling to Cuba because of a US imposed travel embargo (technically, travel to Cuba is not prohibited but spending money there is, it’s enforced through the Trading With The Enemy Act. “Trading with the Enemy” is another excellent non photographic book about Cuba) and this book whetted the appetites of thousands of Americans who wanted to experience the forbidden country 90 miles south of Key West. It started the trend of photo workshops in Cuba, led by Harvey, Allard, Steber and other photographers and was the only way many Americans could travel to Cuba without breaking the law (because educational and cultural trips were permitted under the terms of the embargo).
This is a very short list of the photo books that I most enjoy. If you see one of them in your local bookstore, pick it up, enjoy and be inspired.
Most of the stories I work on are ones I assign to myself. I read something in a local newspaper or stumble on something on the internet that piques my interest, do some research and start photographing. Sometimes it’s a news event, like the exodus (and subsequent return) of Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand. Sometimes it’s an issue related story, like drought in Thailand. Other times, it’s just fun stuff. Sometimes it just takes a lot of “sticktoitiveness” to get the story done.
Chinese opera definitely falls into the fun category. This is Ghost Month in Chinese communities around the world. Thailand has a large Chinese community and Chinese holidays, like the Chinese New Year or the Vegetarian Festival, are usually cause for a big celebration here.
Chinese opera, called “ngiew” in Thailand, is popular and I thought that Ghost Month would be a great opportunity to photograph some Chinese opera. The problem with photographing Chinese opera, though, is finding one. It’s not that the operas are secret, but they’re held at small Chinese shrines and temples and they are not usually advertised. They’re as much religious as they are entertainment and announcement of a coming Chinese opera is usually limited to posters in the temples. The posters are frequently in Chinese, which for me is a problem because while I don’t read Thai I can get it translated. But Chinese? It’s all Greek to me.
I’ve photographed a couple of Chinese operas since coming to Thailand. If I can, I collect contact information from every opera I go to, but it’s always been a challenge to pin down the exact time and location of a Chinese opera.
Last month I started sending emails and making some calls on Chinese opera. I contacted an opera “source” who had always been very helpful. She told me there were probably no Chinese operas in Bangkok for Ghost Month because Chinese opera during Ghost Month was not a big part of the Thai Ghost Month tradition. She told me that most of the Thai Chinese opera troupes went to Malaysia for Ghost Month, but that a couple of opera troupes might be performing in Bangkok and told me at which shrines they might be performing.
So I put on my walking shoes and went on a research mission. I went to a Chinese shrine on the riverfront in the Dusit district. No one in the temple spoke English but iPhone to the rescue. I showed people in the temple pictures I had on my iPhone from other Chinese operas I photographed and used the Translate app to ask about opera. People in the temple liked the photos and thought the app was amusing. But said no, they had no opera for Ghost Month. They did say they had one coming in December. I added that to my calendar but left disappointed.
Then I went down to Chinatown and Talat Noi and wandered through the alleys and shrines looking for evidence of a Chinese opera. It was nice but fruitless stroll. I found no operas.
My last stop was a small shrine in a neighborhood behind Chulalongkorn University, between MBK shopping center and Hua Lamphong train station. My opera “source” said there had been Chinese operas in the neighborhood for Ghost Month in years past but the neighborhood was being torn down (urban renewal Bangkok style) and she wasn’t sure if the neighborhood shrine was still open.
On my first visit the shrine was deserted. It was open, candles and incense burning inside, but there was no one there and no sign of a coming opera. Although the shrine is still open, the neighborhood around it is being razed to make way for condominiums and shopping malls, which I took as a bad sign.
On a whim I went back to shrine over the weekend. There were a couple of new posters in the shrine in Chinese but more importantly there was a charming woman who thought it was quite nice that a foreigner had wandered into her temple. (This is way, way off the tourist trail.) I started the whole iPhone translate routine of asking about Chinese opera and she said, “you want to photograph a Chinese opera?” In English.
I told her that I did, that I was a journalist working on a story about Chinese opera and Ghost Month and asked if she knew of any Chinese opera. She said her shrine was having a Chinese opera in 18 days. That didn’t seem right because it would take us out of Ghost Month so we hunted down a calendar and I counted ahead 18 days. While I was counting, she stopped me at August 18 and said “Here. In 18 days.” And I said, “you mean on August 18?” She pointed to the poster (which was in Chinese) and said, “yes, August 18.”
Yesterday I went down to the shrine. There was a small stage blocking the street in front of the shrine. It was the Chinese opera I was looking for and the performers couldn’t have been nicer. When I started photographing they thought I was just going to make a couple of snapshots and leave. After about 90 minutes, they realized that I was in this for the long haul. So they pulled up a chair for me, offered me dinner and regaled me with stories about their lives in greasepaint. Of course, no one spoke English and I speak neither Thai nor Teochow (Chinese) so our conversation was limited to my laughing and nodding but it was a great evening and good experience. All thanks to a healthy amount of sticktoitiveness.
Here’s a very simple tip to help improve your photography: change your point of view. Sometimes we photographers get used making pictures at eye level. We think about using different lenses and trying various focal lengths, we even move to a different spot but how often do we think of changing our point of view right where we are standing?
This picture was made during the Chinese New Year parade in Vancouver. I was literally fighting the crowds to photograph the parade as it went by and getting very frustrated as people with cameras and phones blocked my view as every float and band went by. Finally I decided to drop to street level and see things from a different perspective. The real gem was when I turned around and looked through the legs of the crowd and saw this scene of people watching the parade.
My favourite camera these days is my Olympus OM-D E-M5. It has many great features but one that I use quite often is its rear screen which tilts 80° upwards and 50° downwards. This allows me to photograph without bringing the camera up to my eye. I can put the camera above my head, tilt the screen downwards and still clearly see what is in my frame. This perspective is the equivalent of either being 7 feet tall or standing on a ladder which I would never get from just shooting at eye level. With the upward tilt, I can put the camera into low, small or tight spaces and still see the screen, like I did with this picture. Even if you don’t have a camera with a tilt screen, you can still shoot overhead or at waist or street level, it’s just that you won’t have a preview so it will take a few more tries before you get what you might be looking for in the frame.
Changing your point is especially useful when photographing certain subject matter. I find when photographing children, it is particularly effective to photograph them at their eye level. Taking pictures from the level of an adult can dwarf children and make them appear less important or worse yet, not quite human. If you are interested in doing food photography, changing your perspective can make a big difference to your photographs. Breeze through the many pictures made of food and you will see novices tend to photograph from the perspective of being seated at the table with a plate of food in front of them. Change your point of view and photograph a plate of food directly from above and instantly the viewer has a different experience.
As with all things photographic, experiment. Try placing your camera in a different place and see what the world looks like from that perspective. Get into a habit of working your perspective and make it part of your process. Like me, you might just be surprised with the results.
Long before cameras became so ubiquitous, people drew. It was not just a tool for recording what they saw but it was a language of its own. It still is, except fewer people draw today compared to the number of people who take pictures. In fact it is not uncommon to hear people say they became photographers because they could not draw.
It might seem strange to encourage photographers to learn how to draw but there is a good reason. Learning to draw is really about learning to see. The process of drawing requires one to pay attention to details, to really notice what you are looking at and along the way from observation to the final picture, we develop a deeper understanding of all that we see.
Here’s an exercise that will demonstrate what I mean.
The next time you go out to photograph, take a notebook or sketchpad with you. Find something you’d like to photograph and make a picture of it. Then turn around and face the other direction and draw what you think is in that frame. When you compare the drawing with your photograph, what do you see? Your drawing will probably resemble your photograph based on the focus for making the photograph. For example if you wanted to make a picture of a building, you will draw that building. What will be missing from your drawing will be all the details around that building, the things in the background or the things around the edges of your frame.
If you sit in front of that same scene and draw what you see before you, regardless of your drawing skill, you will capture more of those details. Drawing will transform what you perceive and will teach you to think with your eyes. That contemplation of observing something through a concentrated period of time will lead to better photographs.
This quote by artist and observer John Ruskin says it all:
Let two persons go out for a walk; the one a good sketcher, the other having no taste of the kind. Let them go down a green lane. There will be a great difference in the scene as perceived by the two individuals. The one will see a lane and trees; he will perceive the trees to be green, though he will think nothing about it; he will see that the sun shines, and that it has a cheerful effect; and that’s all! But what will the sketcher see? His eye is accustomed to search into the cause of beauty, and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness. He looks up, and observes how the showery and subdivided sunshine comes sprinkled down among the gleaming leaves overhead, till the air is filled with the emerald light. He will see here and there a bough emerging from the veil of leaves, he will see the jewel brightness of the emerald moss and the variegated and fantastic lichens, white and blue, purple and red, all mellowed and mingled into a single garment of beauty. Then come the cavernous trunks and the twisted roots that grasp with their snake-like coils at the steep bank, whose turfy slope is inlaid with flowers of a thousand dyes. Is not this worth seeing? Yet if you are not a sketcher you will pass along the green lane, and when you come home again, have nothing to say or to think about it, but that you went down such and such a lane.
As a photographer, which person would you like to be?
Have you ever hit a plateau in your photography? When every picture you make feels the same? Maybe you look around and think you need to travel to some place different or exotic to make better photographs? It is easy to fall into the trap of believing where you live has become boring and there’s nothing left to be photographed there.
Photography is, in large part, about seeing but most people stop at looking and never really notice what is all around them. We love to take part in the great picture hunt, joining photo walks, roaming the streets to collect trophies of “the decisive moment”. What if we were to stand still for a moment and just be present? What would you notice? What would you actually see? What would you photograph?
Try this exercise and I am sure you will be surprised. The next time you are out with your camera, find a place to stand still for an hour. Yes one whole hour. During this time, you can use any lens on your camera but you cannot move from your chosen spot. Spin around 360 degrees, stand on your tiptoes or crouch down. Just don’t move from your self-assigned spot.
If you need a starting point, use the list of visual elements to help you find something to photograph (light, tone, line, shape, texture and perspective). Don’t worry if you feel uncomfortable or if nothing comes to you when you start this exercise. Standing still is counter-intuitive to how many of us have been taught to make photographs and we are unlearning habits to learn something new.
When you are done, leave a comment below. If you have a place where you post photographs online, let us know. We’d love to see how you fared with this exercise.