Editor's Note ~ Photographer's Soul
Here you have, before you, the first issue of what I hope will be an educational and rewarding exploration of how we see photographs. Not as the viewer but as the creator, and not from me as a teacher (Because I’m not) but as a seeker. The journey may lead us to how the viewer will look at our photographs and interpret them. Will our message cross over to them? The reason for this project, Photographer’s Soul, is because I’m not alone in the idea that composition and communication through photography are the hardest parts of the whole package. I will state that the technical aspects of creating a photograph are easy in comparison, to composition, even when I know they are difficult to master. I’ll even go so far as to say a bad composition will kill an otherwise technically perfect shot. There exists the realm of possibility that I will change my mind after this project has progressed, but I doubt it. Ask any photographer, experienced or not, how do you know you have a good composition. Better yet, how do you craft a good composition? Chances are you will be met with, “huh, I’m not sure, it’s a gut feeling.”
Intuition is an interesting subject. We aren’t talking about the “6th sense,” real intuition comes from practice and frame of reference. But how do we create this “feeling”? Can or should it even be attained with more efficiency than it already develops? What I do know is the act of seeking an answer can be more enjoyable than the actual discovery. This project is about the journey.
The technical side of photography is easy to learn. It is simple; it’s just science and mechanics. Simple you say? Yes, so simple you will not need even one page of calculus (Whew). How you get a correct exposure is well documented in books and the Internet. These tools even have dedicated feedback displays, such as the histogram, to help you see the result of the exposure you created. Depth of field is explained to death in a huge variety of accessible texts, someone has even done all the math and created mobile apps and web calculators. Showing you where your zone of focus will be for a given camera and lens, demonstrating what happens when you vary the focal length, aperture, and distance to subject. There are eBooks on “Getting Tack Sharp Focus,” and “How to Capture Your Child/The Milky Way/A River/A Waterfall/The Sunset.” The Internet is full of photo examples of what happens to focus at f/16 or f/2.8, whose lens has the best Bokeh or edge-to-edge sharpness. Composition doesn’t have this. Composition gets either, “Rule of 3rd’s Your Way to Being A Pro” or “Learn How To See.” Both of which give you examples of an arcane rule that is supposed to magically make your compositions gold. But they don’t.
The reason the technical side of photography is so much easier is because we have a physical and mechanical object, a camera, to hold in our hand and flip switches. To do this, you do that. Proven over time to never change. Seeing/creating composition, a good one I should say, uses neurons in the brain as switches and they have to be built before they can be toggled. The difference is one uses a camera as the mechanical part and the other, our brain. In a short amount of time, dependent upon your motivation, you can learn what it takes to make a technically good shot. It may still take practice but again, it depends on your motivation to memorize or create procedures. See, simple. Mind you, I say this in scale relation to composition. Learning how to work your camera and understand how to take a technically good photo is still challenging.
What the camera produces is documentable. Something you can print or put on the web and say, I did this to the camera and BAM I got this. Making the technical side easy to learn as getting feedback from the LCD screen behind your camera.
Today we see blog posts about “Applying The Rule Of Thirds For Killer Compositions,” or a derivative. Who doesn’t like the easy button? I remember when OfficeMax came out with the “easy button” commercial in the states. It was a cute red button that you smacked, and it said, “That was easy.” Implying that shopping at OfficeMax made your life easy. Alone, these rules like the rule of thirds, when applied, give you little. I will admit, the result is a better composition than one with the subject in the center of the frame. Sometimes it is exactly what you need to do in regards to composition. What we do not know is the context around why the rule was created and if it applies well to our work today. Was it a cheeky commentary by a block printmaking monk on his peers in the middle ages or the resulting power points of the golden ratio? The point is, if you put a boring subject on a third of a frame it’s still boring. Combine the rule with other design elements and you may have something. More on that later.
On the Internet, we now have unprecedented access to the pool of ever increasing photographers and educators. This is both good and bad. Unguided, people will not progress fast and assume their one or two design elements have netted them great compositional success. In photography learning groups in social media, I’ve observed lots of people post these great photos of leading lines or diagonal lines (insert visual graphic element). Then find themselves sad that nobody praised their great shot. A photo of lines may be great and a good composition, but often just a study in lines. Nobody told them the secret that you have about 8,000 more shots to go and fifteen more graphic elements to explore before you combine them in a killer composition. I also see rebuttal comments from the photographer like, “look at that light, it’s so special, look what I saw it’s killer.” Yes, it is great light but it’s just great light. The shot is sharp, exposure spot on, and the light makes great lines. But it’s just not interesting. The composition is too basic, with no inspiration.
If you show a knowledgeable photographer a photo and ask how it was made, from a technical standpoint, it is pretty easy to convey the how. Because, there are as many ways to achieve a “look” in a photograph, as there are combinations of ISO-Aperture-Shutter to attain an exposure. Ask the majority of knowledgeable photographers how that photo achieved it’s great composition. When a photo works, it is a combination of technical merits/composition/feeling. Most people will look and say something on how the subject lines up on a diagonal, the leading lines pull you here, or the subject is on a third or how they applied the Golden Spiral. Armchair photo critique aside, ask them how they know they have a good composition in their work, and you get, “it’s a gut feeling.”
Take these quotes from well known photographic artists on the subject of composition.
“How the visual world appears is important to me. I'm always aware of the light. I'm always aware of what I would call the 'deep composition.' Photography in the field is a process of creation, thought and technique. But ultimately, it's an act of imaginatively seeing from within yourself.” ~Sam Abell
An act of imaginatively seeing from within yourself. Quite clear, no? Now, one from one of my favorite artists on making a photograph.
“It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.” ~ Henri Cartier-Bresson
It is romantic and mystical; it comes from your eye, heart, and head! So much clearer now. Henri was far more analytical about photography than he lets on. He’s on to a great point, but that point is hard to understand.
In complete honesty, Henri Cartier-Bresson had it right with this, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” Why? Because it takes practice. I, for one, think the bulk of those 10,000 photos are associated with understanding how to make a great composition. The first few thousand were created in learning how to expose and what lenses to use. The rest is our attempts to find out or to train ourselves what a great composition is.
Andreas Feininger nailed it,
“The photographer has almost as much control over his subject matter as a painter. He can control light and shade, form and space, pattern and texture, motion and mood, everything except composition.”
Doesn’t that just instill confidence in you? Well, it should. A good composition is a hard thing to define. Seeing and photographing a great composition can become a more controlled “gut feeling.” Through practice, you can put your brain on high alert for elements that will catch your eye. Increasing your ability to capture better compositions. But it still is a feeling and not something that dials turned, and toggles flipped equal finding it. This gray area of what makes a great composition is why I want to know the how and why it’s done.
Over fifteen years ago I started practicing Buddhism. Like many westerners, I was introduced to the philosophy through mindfulness meditation. The meditation started a long path of study and attempts to understand the various mystical concepts of Buddhism. Which turn out, are practical and simple. The hardest part is the meditation. To allow us to live a life closer to the philosophy of Buddhism, we practice mindfulness meditation to attempt to train our brains to quiet down. There is this concept of the monkey brain. Where the brain’s thoughts are a monkey in the corner of the room flinging poo and taking our attention at any and all times. We have all experienced the monkey brain. When you leave for vacation, and while on the way to the airport you can’t stop wondering if you left the iron on. Now your anxiety grows because a fire starting object is alive in your house. Poised to tip over and burn a hole in your carpet, through two floors and halfway to the core of the earth. Earthquakes could happen, and people could die! Never mind that most modern irons have an automatic shut-off and the fact that you have never left it on before. Doesn’t matter, you can’t stop thinking about it. Your anxiety goes up, you get nervous, the trip is already ruined before you left the airport.
Maybe you are in the middle part of your life, and your mid-life crisis consists of attending school at a late age to get that degree you never finished. But your thoughts of being too old or not having enough time keep you from applying to the University. This is the monkey brain. This is what takes you out of the moment you are in right now and makes you think about the past or future, things that are long gone or haven’t happened yet, or at all. We meditate on nothing, relishing for the monkey brain to toss us a bag of poo, and we just nod and let it pass. Sounds easy but it’s pretty darn hard. Try doing that for more than five minutes. But over time, through compassion for ourselves, we sit, and the monkey throws more poop. We nod and acknowledge, then let it pass. Using a technique of breath focus to bring our minds back to the moment we are in right now.
I’ll tell you what happens after all this meditation. Your back starts to hurt from the lotus position. Just kidding, that happens at the start and gets better. What happens is the length of time you can sit and experience the current moment without the monkey brain interfering extends. It goes from five minutes to fifteen and with practice it can go for days. Yup, days, years ago meditation and just sitting got me to a point of ability to sit for days at a retreat, doing nothing. Trust me, that is a great thing. Nothing feels sweeter than being in the moment for an extended period, except for maybe having a composition just “click” or happen. The effects of meditation will spill over into your non-sitting life. While walking around in the grocery store, the pushy lady in the produce section is less frustrating. Your road rage vanished, and you didn’t notice until your spouse mentions it. That level of frustration you have, when your children are pushing your buttons, isn’t reached as quick. Point of telling you about my Buddhist experience is to highlight the similarity in practice and how finding composition isn't just a simple gut feeling some have and other's do not.
This is what seeing and producing great compositions is like. I’m sorry to say, we can’t show you a formula. Heck, they make it seem like it’s so with all these rules of 3rd and magical phi formulas. I take that back, there is a formula, but you may freak out when you see it. Assuming the idea, Henri Cartier-Bresson expressed in how your first 10,000 photos will suck, freaked you out. In the book The Photograph; Composition and Color by Harald Mante, Harald talks about five main visual design elements that he feels matter to photographers (the Point, the Line, the Shape, Universal Contrasts, and Color Contrasts). These are broken down to more: the relationship between the figure and ground or subject and background, etc. (also known as negative and positive space). Ok, so the point is, there is a ton of them. Each are little bits of design elements. Now, if you go and take say 100 shots of each of the points. You will get good at each visual element. By the time you are done, do you have a great photograph? No, but you may have a few good examples for Harald to put in the third edition of his book. After you take the first 100 shots of each of the elements, do you see these elements as you walk the grocery store? If the answer is no, go shoot a hundred more of each of those. Are you seeing them now? Do you see several in a scene? Have you just walked up to a beautiful mountain scene and a sweet arabesque caught your eye? Now you are seeing as an artist, as a photographer. At this moment, you know why you have a gut feeling that THIS composition is working. The “aha” moment you just had was built on training your brain to see these features or patterns.
My goal isn’t to scare you from defining photography. You may have gotten into the field because you are an engineer, and you love technology, and you will produce good photography. This endeavor you love so much may be your hobby and the thought of such a large quantity of photos to achieve goodness may frighten you. Don’t let it, you will produce great photography. No lie, it will not be good for a while, but it will get better. We naturally gain a frame of reference by experience. We either stumble through it on our own discovery or we jump in the pool by gazing at the great masters, take workshops, snap photos until the shutter button pops off. You will develop, film pun intended. However, if the idea of making great photos with wonderful compositions that evokes a feeling in you and those who view them excites you. Or maybe you are the engineer who wants to fast track through the soft gooey side of art creation, that is why I created the Photographer’s Soul. If the great Buddha can pass down a detailed meditation on how to reach enlightenment, then we can explore a way to create a detailed path to creating the photographer’s eye or benefit from more gut feelings. Again, this is all hypothesis at this point, we may discover you either have the artist's eye or you don't.
I have a mind that is both a creative person and a scientist. With a degree in Geology and Chemistry, now the CEO of a chemical company, I have always yearned to create things. From art to literature and over to chemical compounds and people elevated to their potential. Some of you are far more on one side; a real left or right brainer. Many people I have talked to - and soon to interview - have said things like, “Oh that technical side to photography, yea, that’s hard scientific mumbo-jumbo stuff, what is easy for me is the feeling side. I just see a scene and know it will make a good photo.” On the other hand, I know photographers who find the technical side easy but the composition and communication of feeling in a photograph side foreign. Reminds me of a photography art showing I went to with friends. A close friend of ours was showing her work, a real artist from the day she was born. As we looked at her work, she came over to talk to us, as did a few other people. As we praised her for such a great art show, another person asked her why so may were not “tack sharp.” Before she could form an answer, another lover of the arts snorted, “I don’t give a rats ass about sharpness, look at that feeling!”