Last Sunday I partook in a Photowalk with the Vancouver Street Photographers Consortium. It was a planned outing with the Delta Photo Club. We met at The Gallery George in Vancouver where some images from the VanSPC was on display. There were some great images on display. After some time we headed out in three groups led by members of the VanSPC. We lucked out as the weather was spectacular.
They challenged us with a Scavenger Hunt by handing out a card with a list of ten things to photograph. I have had very little (read NO) shooting in the last one and a half years because of personal reasons. Add to that the fact I headed out with a new camera I am not familiar with including a new focal length lens. Trying out 27mm vs 23mm focal.
Here are the results. Not keepers, but not bad for a 1 hour 45 minute walk while mostly chatting with both members of the walk and some individuals I met on the street. I think, all in all, not a bad day.
I like the Scavenger Hunt card as it focuses you to look and find images. It’s why I love ‘projects’. We will touch on Projects in an upcoming blog. Not the Learning Project but specific, detailed art projects that can elevate your work and can help you through uninspired dog days.
I am fairly happy with the results. I loved being back out in the street shooting. It reminded me of why I love Street Photography. The ‘people.’ It also was a great prep for tackling Paris in nine days.
I missed many shots on this day. Practice, need more practice. Almost all the images were shot blind either from the hip or from a quick lift without using the viewfinder or back display (which I usually leave off.)
As you probably noticed most of my imagery is ‘square cropped.’ I love challenging myself to that format but sometimes it just doesn’t work. As with this next image I struggled with making it square. I will probably return to it and spend more time exploring if square will work.
This day was another first. It was the very first time in all my years of shooting digital that I did not shoot RAW. All my shooting was in JPG, all in B&W. Done. No decisions to make. It is what it is. All the images have less than 10 seconds of editing and that includes the cropping decisions. I will revisit and re-edit my favorites.
This last image of the ten on the list is far from perfect. But there are elements I like very much. This is the kind of image or scene that you can revisit and work on until you get all the stars to align properly. Perhaps something to work with in Paris. What would it look like at night? With Lights?
It was a great way to spend a gorgeous afternoon with friends doing what I love to do. It would have been a great day, with, or without a camera.
Studying and Copying the Masters
Another way to learn from the masters is to study them. When we use the term study, however, many people fail at how to actually study a master. It’s not a simple act of just looking at images. That helps, and, you can learn a lot from observing images. But how do you truly ‘learn’ from them?
Part of that is understanding ‘what’ you can learn from them. Are you wanting to learn that this photographer was born in 1908 and died in 2014 and was responsible for coining the phrase “the decisive moment?” There is more to Henri Cartier-Bresson than the decisive moment.
When we look at the ‘what’ do we want to learn from them, ideally, we want to learn everything. We want to learn the five W’s and the H. The Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How, and we want to learn a bit more than that. The 5 W’s are important, but the ‘How’ and the ‘bit more’ are where you will learn and grow as an artist.
If we look at Saul Leiter for example, the important stuff is that he was an iconoclast and he used various signature framing techniques such as out-of-focus areas and other devices such as reflective surfaces; He used bold Colors (part of his iconoclast philosophy of the time) and somehow managed to create visual poetry. All of this is important. And knowing this is less important than knowing ‘how’ he did this, how he created the poetry, and more importantly, how to re-create these techniques and how to use or incorporate those devices in your work.
The idea is not to copy the works you are studying, although learning how to copy images is always a great learning opportunity, but rather to learn new skills and techniques and choose which of these techniques and devices will enhance your works and will better reflect your voice and vision so you can create your own visual poetry and develop your own style.
This post is not about breaking down Saul Leiter’s images, but rather giving you a guide and pathway on how you can get there yourself, studying any photographers’ images. Interestingly, you can use the same tools to study your own images! More on that later.
Part 1 – The Images
The best way to do this is to have a bunch of the photographers’ images on hand. One can do this using a book and then using memory and image-by-image comparisons, but the best way is to print out a bunch of 5×7 images. The more images the better. They do not need to be ultra-high quality, but they should be good enough to see some details and somewhat accurate colors. This is difficult to accomplish if the images are too small. 4” x 5.5” is not too bad if you print them yourself as they are simply 8.5” x 11” sheets cut into quarters or packs of 4” x 6” paper is available.
You need 20 to 40 images for this to work well and to help you spot smaller little devices that may be used less seldom than the 2 or 3 blatant devices that are easy to spot even from memory when browsing a book. You need more than 10 but even small numbers can work well, especially when assessing your own “projects”.
Part 2 – Observing and Studying
Lay all the images out on a surface in a grid and start observing and studying them. Look at EVERYTHING. Look for ANYTHING.
Where are the images sharp and think about why those particular areas are sharp? Do they make sense? Is the main subject in focus or is the focus on a secondary background element that the maker wanted you to look at?
Where are they out of focus and why are those areas out of focus? Are they simply shallow Depth-of-Field from a large aperture or are the out-of-focus caused by compression of areas objects that include objects near the camera? In Saul Leiter’s case, those blurry areas and negative space act as bounding or framing areas and are often blurred on purpose, shallow DOF, or caused by elements near the camera being incorporated into the image.
Is there any blur? Out of focus? Is it intentional? Why was it done? What shutter speed was used from a stationary camera or was the camera manipulated?
Are the majority of the images Black & White or Color? What is the importance or significance of that choice? How does that choice affect the work? Note that the choice of Black & White or Color can greatly change how your images are viewed and what message they will convey.
Are the Black & White images somewhat Flat or are they very High Contrast? Are shadows exaggerated, on purpose, or, are they naturally dark shadowed locations on bright days? Remember to always look at the light and the dark areas.
Do the Black & White images show any grain? Is it in all the images or just some? Is it constant in texture and size (based on the original source and, how you have printed them, the grain and other details, may or may not be visible.)
Are the B&W Images toned? Or split-toned?
Are the colors muted, pastels, or big and bold like Saul Leiter’s? Are most of the colors all the same? Is it on purpose, based on local, or a natural attraction of the photographers? Do the Color images look natural or are the colors off? Are the colors different because of a choice of film or digital filter or manipulation? If so, what film was used, or what digital technique or digital film simulation was used to change or manipulate the colors? Learn to recognize what colors are off and what colors have they shifted to.
You can see from the above questions just how complex this all can get. We haven’t even touched on Compositional Elements or Techniques or Photographic Devices, technical elements such as choice of lens or format, or even on how (what technique) was used to get the images. Then we need to look at physical components within the images themselves including subject matter and other secondary or supporting objects. What creative elements are being used, if any?
And let’s not forget about the mood or the story. What is the photographer trying to say, if anything?
Even simple little things can show up in images. A solitary rock somewhere off on the side or even on the sidewalk or curb within the image. It may be there or it may have been planted by the photographer on purpose as a ‘trademark’ or device that shows up in ALL their images. The variables are limitless.
What you will find is that most photographers who have a style will have some or many of these elements and devices show up in most of their images.
Part 3 – Identify
The goal is to Identify what all these elements and devices are. This can get tricky based on how long a photographer has photographed as their style may have evolved and changed over the years. It may also change based on a subject matter or even based on the photographer’s projects.
Identify and create (write down) a list of the elements and devices you spot.
Part 4 – Grouping
This is where grouping images can help. It’s sometimes a good idea with a prolific long-time photographer to group images by date. Or with a photographer that shoots different projects to arrange images by project, but before you do, try this.
Based on all the images in front of you, re-arrange the images into groups of images that look similar or work well together. Do they ALL work well as a group of images or do they seem to naturally split up into various groups? Are there any outliers (images that do not fit within the framework of the other groups?)
Part 5 – Identify by Group
Now try identifying the elements and devices by the group. This will usually be easier as you will be working with similar images. What makes them similar?
How is one group different from the other groups?
Are there any elements, devices, or similarities that are in several groups?
If you found some outliers, why are they outliers? Identify why they are different and notice the elements that are missing and not making fit within any of the other groups.
Part 6 – Observe the Natural Groups
This often is the fun part. These groups you created often will group themselves by date, or a different phase of a photographer’s development, or often by the different projects the photographer works/worked on.
It’s possible these are not projects but rather the photographer’s affinity or attraction to specific elements, devices or subjects. Some photographers NEVER actively work on projects.
Check to see if these groups have any significance. If the photographer has iconic images, are they mostly from the same group? Are they from a similar period in the photographer’s development or are they scattered in time?
With some photographers, you can get a history of different phases in their life. It’s a bit more work but sometimes the groups or certain types of images will come from certain periods in someone’s life. Pre or post-drug addiction, loss of a spouse or child, a move from photographing one genre to another, you get the point.
Part 7 – Chose a Group
Find a group you like best or that you are attracted to. Once you have identified and written down all the elements and devices used within that group, set out to detail all the elements. What are they, and how are they created? Was a specific lens used? What was the aperture or shutter speed? Distance? Lighting? Composition?
Be specific with all your details. Write them down. This list will become important.
NOTE: A reminder that writing things down is a great way to learn but more importantly a great way to force yourself to learn about your emotions, your art, and how to verbalize what your art and emotions are about. A large part of this is learning what vocabulary to use.
Part 8 – The Blueprint
Search in books or online how a photographer photographed. What equipment did they use? What camera? What lens? How did they specifically shoot? What settings did they use? Fixed focus? From the hip? Find out all you can and then look at the images again. Is what you have read about the photographer’s work reflected within the images in front of you?
If something isn’t clear, i.e. doesn’t make sense, make some guesses and write them down. You can do this photograph by photograph.
Part 9 – Shoot!
Now you are equipped with a roadmap to photograph just like the person you are trying to emulate and learn from. This site is about Street Photography but the same applies to ANY of the genres.
Equip yourself with the camera and lens you think you need to re-create the images (no, you don’t need a Leica). Familiarize yourself with the Exposures (over/under) you will need, the Shutter Speeds and Apertures you will need, and set your camera appropriately.
Head out and shoot using the same skills and techniques and be mindful of the elements and devices you are trying to mimic. Think lightness/darkness, shadows, silhouettes, composition, Color, and whatever elements you had on your written list.
If you are heading out on a different day or on different days, it’s a good idea to re-read the list as a reminder just before you head out to shoot. This will help you with visualizing and spotting the elements subconsciously when you see them.
Part 10 – Print Your Work
Print some of your better images and put them into the images of the group you used for creating your studied photographer’s blueprint. How well do your images fit in? What works? What doesn’t? What needs to change? How will you change it?
Part 11 – Shoot and Repeat
Shoot again until you get it right. It may be a technique, or it may be composition or any of the elements. Make notes on what’s right and not right. Figure out what you need to change to make it right. Ask fellow photographers for help if you need it. Another eye can be very helpful.
Repeat this process until you master their style. Every step along the way will be a learning experience.
Part 12 – Final Step
Once you have mastered the style and look you are after, you can choose another group of images to emulate, or you can move on to another photographer to mimic.
The idea is to learn all the techniques and shooting styles you can and then incorporate these into your work. You want to shoot with specific elements and devices that will complement your style and will enhance your voice and will help you tell the story you want.
You want to choose elements and devices that speak to you, and you want to photograph the subject matter that speaks to you. By this, I do not mean shooting ‘Street Photography’ but rather small slices or parts of Street Photography that you like and that speak to you. You need to love what you are doing and photographing, and you should shoot for yourself, not please others. This is another post for another time, just remember to be true to yourself and your images will be better.
See you on the streets.
How I got into Street Photography
I forced myself to learn new skills every year, two skills actually. Usually, one in the fall for rainy days and one in the spring to inspire and motivate me. Flowers/Digital Processing, Birds/Mastering RAW, Street Photography/B&W Photography, Fine Art Landscapes/Darkroom, Fine Art/Digital Printing.
Wait, what? Darkroom. Yes, that was the “Darkroom” you saw there. I won’t get into the long list of why I chose each of those two topics/subjects to learn year after year (and new ones since) but let’s touch on the darkroom.
To this day some of the best prints in the world are old-fashioned B&W Analog Prints. Not those we do on RC Paper but those toned Fiber Prints or even those Platinum Prints (OK and carbon prints and others). The point is those prints are all very special. How was I going to learn how to make similarly exceptional prints when I did not even know how they were made, or how they even actually looked like up close. I spent a lot of time in the darkroom in the last six years of my schooling. My teacher was an exceptional photographer and he drove me to make great RC prints. But, as good as my prints may have been, they were not at all like some of the exceptional prints I have seen since in galleries. So, back to the darkroom I went to learn from two other exceptional analog photographers and printers. I worked hard taking 3 college darkroom courses over a two-year period. During that time, I read up on what makes great B&W prints, what qualities do they have, or need to have. And, what makes great B&W Images in the digital world. I worked on my Digital printing and strived to make them as near as I could to perfect analog gallery prints.
I learned a lot and had a great time being back in the darkroom. I made some good friends. And most importantly, I became a much better Digital B&W (and Color) printer.
The point is I pushed myself into learning Digital B&W Printing using magazines, books, classes and lots of Internet research. Oh, and during that time I did a ton of digital printing and even learned how to create better RAW images that would result in better quality prints.
After I finished my quest for better B&W digital printing, I next chose to push myself out of my comfort zone by diving into Street Photography. The ‘photography’ component was not out of my comfort zone as I had done years of news and sports photography, but despite not being shy, I still didn’t feel comfortable capturing images of complete strangers without first asking for their permission.
I stumbled across a one night “Introduction to Street Photography” class offered by a local Street Photographer, took the class, and fell in love with Street Photography. Literally as simple as that. Using the same techniques and drive that I had for other learning opportunities, I threw myself at Street Photography and never really looked back. I still work on some other photography, some art projects and such, but more and more I find myself wanting holidays in large cities rather than beaches and tourist locals and traps.
Since then, I have travelled the East Coast of the U.S. hitting Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, some of the West Coast including Vancouver, Seattle and Portland and some European cities like Frankfurt, Paris, Rome, Venice and others. I was even in Jerusalem, and as much as I loved my tour of Israel including Masada and Petra, Jordan, it was Jerusalem and Palestine I fell in love with. I didn’t have to think very long about why that was, it was the amazing people I met and the incredible photographic opportunities.
Now I find myself already booked on another trip to Paris in October. Partly to get some me time, but also to get more shooting in and, to take two back-to-back 3-day workshops with Valerie Jardin while I am there.
If you want to get better at something, throw yourself at it. And not with a little bump, but with enough force to make a big crash! Learn what you need to learn properly, give it time so you master it. Not become a master, but rather shoot it without having to think about what you need to do, what settings you should use and so on. Do it long enough so that it’s at least second nature and comfortable.
Also, very importantly, learn all the different ways and techniques required for the genre you have chosen. In Street Photography, learn shooting blind, from the hip, point and shoot, dive in, and the various other techniques including some clandestine methods. You will inevitably like one style more than the others. Wouldn’t it be a shame if you only tried the technique, you hated the most? Do some research and give yourself some boundaries that fit within your persona and ethics whether you shoot pure Street Fashion, RAW Street Photography, Street Portraiture, Cityscapes, or some other variant.
If after that time you do not really like this new quest, you have taken, its ok, nothing you have learned will have been a waste of time. All the skills and techniques you learn make you a better photographer in almost every other genre. Street photography is no exception. Many Wedding Photographers and Photographic Story Tellers owe their success to street photography.
It’s time to make some noise, what will you throw yourself at?
See you on the streets!
How do we evolve as photographers or artists?
We learn from others via meetups, coffee with peers, clubs, magazines, books, classes, and workshops (online or in-person) and even by looking at many images. We take bits and snippets of all that knowledge that we deem to be true to what we do or want to do as artists. When we take a workshop and listen for two or three days, we hear a lot we already know, we hear things we do not think are good or valid for what we do or how we shoot or we may just not even want to try it. We will hear new things that make sense and based on our success when we try it, we will keep doing it or we will toss it aside.
Over time it is a culmination of all these things we learn, and the decisions we make as to which we will implement or toss aside, that fashion who we are as photographers and artists. They are what will guide our path to ‘our’ style. But, are we making the right decisions as to what we choose to accept as photographic truths that we implement in how we photograph?
New photographers that have just picked up a new camera are excited. They want to be photographers and will go around and shoot whatever they can. Cats, dogs, fire hydrants (because it’s not running away). They try to take in as much as they can as quickly as they can usually from the internet which is filled with many sites that frankly give bad advice; often, incorrect advice. As they progress, they often turn to clubs that then guide their hands and eyes into specific paths that are led by the club organizers and ultimately by the associations the clubs are members of.
Through the club, they will do outings or evening workshops and they will try many new things and new genres. Flowers one day, landscapes another, and long exposures on yet another day. They often only get a general gloss over on how to do these things. Then, based on what they have learned, how they did in their first few attempts, and even on how good the presenter was, they make a decision on whether they like the new skill or genre or not.
This is a bad way of learning new things and a bad way of making decisions on whether you like something or not. How can you decide something when you do not know how to do it, or how to do it well, or correctly?
When I returned to photography after an 18 year absence, I used something that at the time I called “Forced Learning” to help me learn new skills (technical or artistic). The first Forced Learning tasks I gave myself were Flower Photography and Digital Editing. Flower Photography because we were entering the rainy winter season and what I was going to shoot were flowers in a Studio setting so I could get back to working with Portable Flash units and Lighting. Flowers are also very difficult to photograph and decided to take on the challenge of creating good flower photos. Digital Editing was because I knew nothing about it and knew that I needed to learn it.
The important part was not my decision to just ‘try’ something, but rather to master these things. To learn it very well to the point I could teach it if asked. Well enough to win some awards with my photos, even if only at club level.
Both of these things made me a better photographer. I learned an awful lot by mastering these two skills. The following season I tackled Bird Photography and D.A.M. (Digital Asset Management.) and then the following year, B&W Photography and Printing.
B&W Photography and Printing so much so that I decided to take some darkroom classes to get back into the darkroom so that I could learn to make my Digital B&W Prints look more like classic Darkroom Prints. This helped tremendously. The point is that learning these things to the point of mastering them, is not only what helps you become a better photographer, but after spending months working and learning a new skill, you are in a much better position to decide whether you like that genre or not.
For me, the realization was getting into Street Photography. This was one of my Forced Learning skills. I had chosen it because it was going to take me out of my comfort zone. Because I knew nothing about it. And, because I dreaded even going out and shooting strangers on the streets.
I ended up taking a three-hour evening Introduction to Street Photography class, then read a few books while I forced myself to go out and shoot. And here we are, years later, and Street Photography is now my favorite genre; all because I chose to master a new skill.
Forced Learning is your friend. It WILL make you a better photographer. You can use ut to learn new Genres like Street Photography, new Skills like B&W Conversion from Color, or even new Techniques like Zone Focusing. Think about your weaknesses and choose some Forced Learning challenges that will improve your weaknesses or skills you need.
It’s time to become a better photographer! See you on the streets!
Learning to be a better shooter
We all look at newer and better cameras, and we as photographers spend a ton of money on them. Why? We want to take better photos. By buying a new camera what we are doing in essence is blaming our existing gear. Is it a gear problem?
Clearly not. Most of us turn to the masters, whether they be Street Photographers or Landscape Photographers, we all aspire and strive to be like them. Often, people will study these masters haphazardly, will learn what gear they used, and will most of the time not learn ‘how’ these photographers worked. Often, it is the ‘how’ that is most important.
Most of today’s cameras far surpass in quality the cameras of yesteryears master. Yet, most photographers still think they need better cameras. Case in point, are those that look to Ansel Adams as their ‘master’. They love the images, they aspire to do the same, yet they are too lazy to hike their gear to the majestic scenes and too lazy to even use a tripod as Ansel Adams did. So, what do they do when their images are still not the same as the masters and a little blurry? The look for another lens or new camera.
Your camera can do it. As long as you purchased the right camera for the right job, i.e. Not an old 8×10 View Camera for candid street photography, you are probably good. Most Phone, Pocket, Rangefinders, and DSLR digital or film cameras will do the job. All of these technologies can create amazing images. I have created award-winning images that have been published from a camera I purchased many years ago, a Canon 40D with only 10.1 megapixels.
New gear is NOT the answer. Venders and salespeople will tell you it is. Oh, shiny new objects they will put into your hands. Don’t do it. Don’t get caught in the trap.
So, if it’s not the new gear, what should you do to become a better photographer? Well, you can turn to podcasts, magazines, books, classes, workshops (DIY or Expensive varieties) but the most useful way of learning is by going out and shooting. I know photographers that purchased studio lights, read several books on lighting, took three workshops on lighting, upgraded their lights to newer shinny ones, and would not go out and work with a model because; their words, “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Get out, shoot, make mistakes, learn from them. There is NO BETTER WAY to learn, than by doing. Doing, shooting, is the absolute best way to learn and get better.
”Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin
Books, classes, and workshops can help give you better insights and can show you different ways of doing things, and can help with some tips and tricks. Remember however those different ways are not always the best for you. These other ways may not suit your style or your personality. Or, they may. Without trying different ways, how can you know which way is best? You need to invest in these different ways. By invest I mean, time. Don’t try a new skill or technique for an hour or a day and decide it’s not for you. Some techniques, like Zone Focus shooting from the hip, need many outings to master. The rewards however are great. Many skills and techniques are like that. Spend the time, shoot lots, you will be rewarded.
I have had students that have been stuck because they were taught one way to do something and were very reluctant to try different methods or techniques. Many would rather buy new gear (yet again) than change what or how they do things.
Seriously, Podcasts, Books, Classes, and Workshops are for the most part ALL better ways of learning to create better images than getting a new camera and capturing crappy images with more pixels. Get out and shoot.
In the next few posts, I will talk about ways of Self Learning based on a class I teach and will discuss workshops. How to choose workshops, how to prepare, and how to get the most out of them.
See you on the streets.
COVID Break is over!
Finding motivation, let alone inspiration during these extreme weather, lockdown, potential war, COVID times, can be very difficult for some. Add to that a spouse that gets a brain aneurism followed by a stroke, followed by a nasty long to deal with CDIF infection, three surgeries, and COVID-19. That made for difficult times for me. In the past, I was able to turn to photography to rest my mind. But, with everything going on and with work so extremely busy, it has been nearly impossible. I have not picked up a camera in 2 years and a bit.
Things are turning. My life is settling down after a difficult move. Things are settling in. In the last two months, I have judged/critiqued for clubs and in the next week, I will do one more remote session and will for the first time, judge/critique in person!! I am so looking forward to that.
I have dusted off my cameras and lenses and I am eager to get back out shooting. My first foray out will be this Saturday in an easy-to-shoot neighborhood. A camera, a friend, coffee, and a Camera Store. The makings of a perfect day provided the weather holds.
During my COVID break, as I call it, I did very little except for reading some photography books, working on the conceptual aspects and planning of several projects I am working on, and listening to a whole lot of podcasts.
A great street photographer, Valerie Jardin, whom I am sure you are all familiar with (if not, you should be) has been podcasting for 8 years. She finished her show with her final Episode of “Hit the Streets” (https://valeriejardinphotography.com/podcast), Episode number 192 on September 2, 2021.
In that series, there are some excellent episodes and interviews. I tend to listen to them in the car, rather than listening to depressing news when I’m not listening to music. All part of my dealing with the COVID Break. It has been fantastic. There are other Street Photography podcasts I will mention that are also very good, but I wanted to mention this one now as I heard that Valerie Jardin may not keep them available on-line much longer. She suggested they may be gone by the fall or sooner.
All the episodes are available to download for free on her site (link above). I do suggest you grab them while you can. For now, my break is over. I will share some images, even bad ones if they are all I have, after my outing!! Time to get back to work! See you on the streets!