Where and When

As a photographer, I totally rely on my camera. Without a camera (and this includes my cell phone whenever I shoot pictures with it), I won’t be able to capture any photographs. This is a fact for any photographer or anyone taking photos—and who is not these days?

No camera, no photos. As simple as that. Isn’t it then quite an intriguing thought that the two most important choices having maybe the biggest influence on the result have nothing to do with the camera at all? Yes, camera quality does have an impact on the final result. So does aperture and shutter speed. But two of the most important tools for crafting photos are not camera related whatsoever.

I am talking about where and when. If you have no where and no when you might just as well not take any photo. In fact, you cannot capture any without a where and when. You may be unconscious or unaware about them, but any photograph captured is a statement about its where and when.

Think about, even a timeless photo not giving away or depending on a location, will have to have been capture sometime and somewhere. As a photographer, you may choose to not give time and location a visual importance, because you want to give the image a timeless and open quality, but just as often, if not most of the times, both where and when is an important part of the story in a photograph.

Thus, you should be aware of both choices. Because it is yours to pick. In a way, it seems obvious, as you cannot take any photo without a where or a when. You go on a holiday. You shoot photos of the trip and anytime something special happens. It’s clearly about both when and where. However, being consciously aware of the two factors—and more importantly their visual impact—will guarantee to boost the pull of your photos. Because there is more to both where and when than what follows automatically just by shooting.

You want to shoot the Eiffel tower? Obviously the where is Paris. But where is more than just Paris. You can stand on this side of the Seine or on that side of the Seine. You can stand close to the Eiffel tower or you can try to capture it from afar. Or, take the photo above. It’s captured in Canyonlands National Park in Utah, USA and it shows the sandstone formations around the Druid Arch Canyon. However, the where is not only the national park and the specific canyon, but also where in the canyon, which side of it I stand and also at what part of the formations I point my camera. It’s all very conscious decisions on my part.

There is even more to the where. Yes, it’s about the location, it’s about your position as indicated, but it’s also about your point of view. Do you take a step to the right to include the wall there, do you bend down to include more of the foreground, do you step closer or away from details you either want to emphasize or diminish? As you can see, where has quite more to it.

The same goes for time. Let’s look at the above photo again. Time is not only arbitrarily whenever I took the photo. There is a season to it—summertime, to be more specifically—and there is time of the day, too—in this case afternoon. Both have a visual impact. If I had chosen to shoot in wintertime, snow may have covered the ground and the quality of light might have been different. Same with the time of day. I waited until the sun was partially going down beneath the rocks to the right. This brought out drama as well as a direction of the sunlight that emphasized the structural quality of the sandstone formations. Morning light would have created a very different expression.

Another time dimension is important, too, although not so much in this photo. It’s about capturing the highlight of an event or of something going on. This has to do with choosing the right fraction of a second that shows what it’s all about—what the deceased and renown photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called the decisive moment. An obvious example is the moment a high jumper reaches of the bar. Getting the decisive moment right can break and make a photo.

There is even a third aspect of time, which I will only mention slightly here, and which has to do with your choice of shutter speed. However, then we are back to the camera again and its controls, and this post was not about that. In other words, I have gone full circle here now. My advise is to be more aware of both where and when when you photograph—if you aren’t already. It could change the result dramatically.

On a different note: When you read this post, I will be travelling in Belize for two weeks. Thus, I will have to take a break from blogging, but I’ll see you again in a couple of weeks.

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Stop Judging Yourself

Who is usually your worst critic? Am I terribly wrong to think it may be yourself? At least talking for myself; I sure don’t get as harsh critique from anybody but myself. Maybe not right away, but at some point I do get at myself for not having done my best. More often that I like to think.

When I am out there shooting, I usually get that great feeling of being completely present in the moment, and get sucked into whatever I am photographing. It’s what I call entering the tunnel—which I wrote about in the post Tunnel Vision some time ago. If things work out alright while shooting—when I actually enter that tunnel of creativity and concentration—I know after the session is over, that I haven gotten some pictures that will work out fine and might even be quite good.

But no matter how inspired I feel out in the field, whenever I come back and look at the pictures for the first time, I always get disappointed. Fortunately enough I know that with time, usually if I put the pictures aside for a couple of days or even weeks so that I get disconnect from the moment of shooting (and if I have the luxury of time), I will start looking at them differently—and I might start to see the potential in some of them. Still, sometimes, even after having been in the creative tunnel while shooting, I end up with a result that I am really unhappy about. None of the pictures captured the moment or the mood or the emotional context of whatever I was shooting. It’s always very disappointing to have to say to yourself; you did a lousy job.

When I am on assignment I cannot be in this place, and I know enough about photography to make things work so that a client will be satisfied. But it’s usually not during assignments I push myself beyond the limits of myself—at least not without playing it safe for the majority of the shots. It’s with my own projects things can really go completely wrong. And that’s when I become most disappointed with myself. It’s so easy then to backtrack and do the safe thing, save yourself from your own harsh critique. Why go there, when it doesn’t work anyway? I know now that I need to overcome that feeling. It’s almost exactly when things go wrong that I might be on the break of something completely new in my way of shooting. We are all so eager to dismiss ourselves. If the result isn’t perfect we love to give ourselves a slap in the face. You say to yourself: Stay away! Do what you know will work! Or even; stop doing this, because you aren’t good enough! Remember last week’s post about how destructive perfection can be?

Rather, we should say to ourselves: Stop judging yourself. Things go wrong from time to time—in all aspects of life. No big deal. Instead of coming down hard on yourself, try to learn from the experience, and if there is nothing to learn because it was all just a very wrong turn, then step back and give yourself some space. You don’t need to judge yourself so hard. You can’t always expect to please yourself as a creator. The fact is that some of your creations you will like—others not. But don’t stop doing what you are doing for that reason. It’s just like people; you don’t stop meeting people because there are those you don’t like.

Into the Unknown

When we start our journey into the creative realm, we venture into unknown territory. We need to. As a matter of fact being creative means embracing what until the moment of creation was completely unknown to us, otherwise we wouldn’t be creative. After all; to create means to originate or to bring into being from nothing. It means bringing into life something completely new. We—figuratively speaking—take on a journey into new territory. We cannot make this travel without facing the unknown. When we do we are creative discoverers.

For many people, though, the unknown creates a sense of conflict, disorientation, and discomfort. People often attempt to reduce this experience by pretending to know what they actually do not know. But in doing so, they disconnect themselves from the creative source. In order to reduce their discomfort, they manufacture explanations, engage in speculations, and make up theories. They try to make the unknown known through speculations and inaccurate descriptions, and if they aren’t able to, they turn away from the unknown and stay with what they already know. Doing so, though, is detrimental to the creative process.

We grow up in a society that values knowledge, so that we may adopt the premise that we should know what’s happening. This is a value fostered by traditional education, where we are rewarded for knowing and penalized for not knowing. When we create we need to open up for not knowing, be willing to let the journey go wherever it takes us – without knowing.

Thus, an important ability for all who create is being able to live with the unknown, the unresolved, the incongruent, and the contradictory. This contradicts the popular myth that creative people are those who generate fantastic ideas and always have the answer. The truth is that creative people often do not have the answers and are quite aware of the spaces.

It’s like when I go out and shoot on the streets. I literally venture into spaces of unknown. It’s often places I haven’t been to before, but I am curious and open to where the unknown will take me. It’s also a journey in a figuratively sense. I don’t know who I will meet on the street, I don’t know how they will react to me, I don’t know if the will want to meet me at all, I don’t know what these encounters will bring—maybe new friendship, or maybe new knowledge, or maybe hostility or disapproval. Sometimes I do not dare face the unknown on the street, but when I do, my life is always enriched beyond anything I had thought beforehand. And I come home with new and inspiring photographs. I am creating

The Picture Critique is still open, but only for another week or so. By the end of the month I will close this offer to give some feedback if you have a picture you would like to get an outsider’s opinion about. If you are interested, please don’t hesitate to submit a link to a photo on my Picture Critique-page. Remember, it’s not about submitting excellent photos, but about photos you feel uncertain about or photos you would like to get an outsider’s opinion about.

Slow Down

One of the curses of digital photography is that it’s so easy. It’s so easy to shoot anything and everywhere. We end up shooting too fast and too much. In photography fast is not always better. We may do better by slowing down, be more deliberate in our approach.

In the days of analogue film, it cost somewhere around 25 cents for each click. That cost would make expenses rise quickly if you weren’t careful. It motivated photographers to learn their craft and to focus, concentrate, and compose in a more mindful way. Back then, you couldn’t just hold down the shutter and hope, not even on assignment with a comfortable budget.

Pushing a button is easy, but crafting a good photograph is hard. Lake paddling across the sea, it takes consistent work. If you have a long way to paddle you will quickly tire out if you go out too fast. In the long run slow is fast. The same in photography. If you want to create lasting images, don’t just shoot anything and everywhere. Don’t just hold down the shutter button. Rather be mindful and slow. As Chris Owen, photographer, teacher and best-selling author, says: “In the era of instant, it’s the permanent that stands out from the crowd.”

By slowing down you may actually accomplish more. Creating photographs that stand the test of time isn’t an easy thing to do. And I believe most people can’t make images that last, because they are moving too fast. We worry about moments missed, and we take pictures in a furious pace. In photo circles it’s called “spray and pray”—that is to say holding down the shutter and hope.

I notice it in myself particularly when I do street photography. In the beginning of a session, I run around searching for something, anything that is worth capturing. I am afraid I might miss a moment, I believe maybe around the corner is a better vantage point with more activity on the street. I end up shooting a lot of photos, but nothing worth keeping. It’s when I take a deep breath, slow down and decide to stay in one place, wait and let things happen in their own time and pace, that I slowly start to get images that might be worth keeping.

Making good photos requires effort from us. So we shoot a lot of photos to make up for our lack of skill. However, just because you can shoot a lot doesn’t mean you should. But we still do. Why? Because less takes more time. We don’t have—or don’t take—the time to take better photographs, so we end up settling for good or even inferior. We work quickly and hope for the best.

Creating photographs that last means, we need to change our pace. Even Ansel Adams used to say, “twelve significant photographs in a year is a good crop.” When you slow down and lower your expected output, you can become an artisan in your craft. The constrains of a slower pace beckons you to photograph in a more thoughtful way.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken a Fujifilm X10 with the lens set at 20 mm (the equivalent of a 80 mm for a full frame camera). Shutter speed: 1/800 s. Aperture: f/7,1. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Do you need some ideas to improve your photography and not having to spend a lot of money on new equipment? My eBook 10 Great Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Point-and-Shoot Camera might be what you are looking for. It’s an inexpensive eBook full of inspiration, and it’s available on my website http://www.munchow.no.

When Time Is in Shortage

After I launched of my eBook 10 Great Tips to Take Better Photos last week, the reception has been above all expectations. Thanks to all of you, who gave me encouraging comments or kind-hearted feedback—and not the least, thank you to all who bought the book. It’s been a ride on high winds, taken me to a place of pure joy and making me want to start writing new books almost right away.

It has also reminded me of my intention I mentioned on this blog earlier this year, all the way back in January. Back then, I wrote that I had great plans for this blog of mine; I wanted to redesign the site and add more values in various ways to my readership. As such, this eBook is for me the first step in this direction. However, the reminder is in the fact that I had actually expected to also have redesigned my blog by now, as well as having launched more ideas and added new features.

The thing is—and I am sure you have experienced the same—sometimes we want to do so much, while time is holding us back or limiting how much we are actually capable of doing. There is just not enough time to go around. At least that’s our perception. It’s easy to get discouraged and stressed out by this apparent time lack. I have had to tell myself to lay such thoughts aside, not to discourage myself. I simply need to give myself some slack—we all need to do so, I would assume. Sometimes we push so hard, that nothing will ever get close to create a feeling of satisfaction no matter how much we actually are capable of doing.

In the end, I believe it’s better to be ambitious, have many plans, maybe more than is realistically pursuable, than sitting back and not push for much or anything at all. Some ideas may not be able to fly at all, some may need time to be transformed into reality, and maybe, in the end, only a few will reach realisation. It’s still so much better than doing nothing. In my opinion at least.

Another factor adds to this time balance. We have all heard and have probably experienced that time is relative. Isn’t it so that when we feel time is running short, we don’t manage to get much done—no matter how much or little we set out to do. The opposite is true, too, isn’t it? When we feel we are in no shortage of time there is no limit to how much we can get done.

Time is a mental state. We can actually control time. Of course, time never stops, but our experience of time is very much a result of our mental state. If we can relax our mind and not worry about time, there will suddenly be plenty of time. When you feel stressed out for time, try to impose a thought inside of you that there is plenty of time, and suddenly you will start to relax, stress down and time doesn’t feel like a shortage any more.

The last many months—or probably years—I have been flying around feeling the shortage of time. Never being satisfied with myself, never feeling I could get enough done. Launching the eBook actually provided me with a break. First of all because I had finished one of my projects that I had long been working on and wanted to finish, but never really had time for. However and even more importantly, the positive response on the book made me rethink my approach to time and gave me space to relax. This last week, I have allowed myself to think there is plenty of time for all I want to accomplish. It may sound strange, but suddenly it feels as if there is no shortage of time. It is really a mental state.

As a reaction to all this newfound time, I have decided to push on even harder. A couple of weeks ago I met up with Mary Shoobridge, a blogger that I have only had contact with in cyberspace. In mid-August she and her husband visited Bergen, my hometown, and we met face to face for the first—but hopefully not the last—time. One of the things that I brought back from that meeting, besides a very pleasant couple of hours with the two of them, was a question from Mary. She was inquiring about my Picture Critique I have in earlier years offered on this blog. When would I do it again? When I checked, the fact is that last time was back in spring 2015. Since then I have not had time to open up for another around of picture critique again. Well, with my newfound time and not the least because of Mary’s request, I will start a new round later this month. It will be duly announced here. However if you think it could be worthwhile to receive feedback on a photo of yours, you now have some time to either capture a new photo or search your archive for one you would like to have a second opinion about.

Furthermore, I want to flow with this positive response that the eBook has created. I am ready to start working on new books about photography as well as creativity. The question is where to start? I have far to many ideas for new books. So I have decided to ask you blogger-friends. Do you have any thoughts, any desires, any photo eBook you may feel the need for? Is there any theme I might be able to help you with through such an eBook? Please let me know. I will be delighted if you would like to give me some feedback.

By the way, if you haven’t gotten my new eBook 10 Great Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Point-and-Shoot Camera, you will find more information and may buy it on my website www.munchow.no.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken a Canon EOS 1D with 28-135 mm lens set to 28 mm. Shutter speed: 1/125 s. Aperture: f/11. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

The More You Shoot, the Better You Become


One of the most frustrating feelings for any artist is when there is a disparity between your initial creative idea and the final result—when the result isn’t able to convey the vision you tried to express. Talking in photographic terms, it’s the disappointment between the image your thought you got and the one you see on your computer. Quite often the reason for the disparity is lack of experience. The more experienced you become the smaller this gap between vision and result will end up being. It simply takes a while to get better, and there is no other way around it than having to fight your way through it.

According to Henri Cartier-Bresson «your first 10,000 photographs are your worst». When we take into consideration that he used a film-based camera, inherently much slower than today’s digital cameras, maybe we need to update his quote to your first 100,000 photographs. Or maybe even better to use the so-called 10,000-Hour Rule that Malcolm Gladwell cites in his book Outliers. The rule basically says that if you do anything for 10,000 hours you will become an expert at that task. Put in a different, simpler and maybe more obvious way; it comes down to the fact that—as a photographer—the more you shoot, the better you become. As simple as that.

Perhaps the ultimate shooter when it comes to volume was street photographer Garry Winogrand. When he died of cancer at the age of 56 in 1984, he left behind 2,500 undeveloped rolls of 36-exposure 35 mm film (mostly Tri-X), 6,500 rolls of developed but not contact-printed film, and another 3,000 apparently untouched, unedited contact sheets. Colleagues, students, and friends talked about him as an obsessive picture-taking machine. We can all learn from his industrious approach to photography. If we want to become good at what we do, we need to put in enough hours photographing. With enough practise comes confidence, skills and mastery.

If we want to excel as artist we need to do the work, we need to be working continuously over a long period of time. As I wrote in my post Creativity is Work (back in 2011): «You can talk or think all day about photography and creativity, but if you don’t actually perform, nothing will ever come out of your desire to express yourself». Are you willing to do the work necessary to become the photographer that resides in you—or whatever art form you are working with?

The World Doesn’t Need Another Ansel Adams

«Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.» – Oscar Wilde

We all have our heroes. We all have our role models. Be it in arts or in other aspects of life. And that is all fine. The hardest part, though, is to break ties with those heroes. Particularly in arts. To find our own voice takes courage and determination. It takes consciousness and willingness to do those first stumbling steps on our own. Finding your own voice may take some time to develop. But there is no way around it if your want to become true to your own vocation, if you want to become a true artist. It’s just like the child breaking ties with its parents to become a grown-up himself – or herself.

As artists we have all copied others at some point in our creative training. That’s but natural. We learn by copying. One of the great artists may have been the inspiration for our own pursuit of artistic development. And we may have gained momentum by this artist’s vision. But there comes a time to break away. There comes a time to stand on our own, because we don’t want to remain copycats the rest of our lives. That is when your artistic vision starts to develop, and that’s when you start to develop your own artistic style. If you don’t make this initial break, you will always stay in the shadow of your heroes – and nobody will ever care about your arts. No success of any other artist will help you become successful yourself, no matter how good you are at copying their way of seeing, their way of doing and their way of expressing. If you are as good as Ansel Adams doing what he did, no one will ever see anything but his influence on your work – if at all they will cast a glance on your work.

In his book «The Accidental Creative – How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice», the writer and creative consultant Todd Henry opens the last chapter with the title «Cover Bands Don’t Change the World». The same could be said about any arts – our arts. If we don’t free ourselves from our heroes, we will never be able to impact anyone with our arts; in fact it will hardly be worth the term art at all.

Henry continues: «It’s my desire to continue to strive to find my own voice and to weed out all the places where I’m being “cover-bandish”. This can be very tricky because it often means turning down more work than I accept, but my hope is that the original value that I bring to the clients I chose to work with will create raving “fans” who want to continue to work with me and trust me when I develop new products or ideas.»

Back when I started out pursuing a photographic career one of my heroes was Ansel Adams. I thought his black and white landscape pictures spoke directly to my heart. I was very impressed with his way of bringing out details and tones in all parts of the landscape and his dramatic visual language. He inspired me to learn about the Zone System – and needless to say, my pictures started to look very much like his – if far from as good. In my case breaking loose happened by itself, simply because I lost interest in landscape pictures and moved on to other fields. Of course I found other role models, but then I was already more conscious about my own vocation and my own way of seeing.

Be yourself. I much prefer seeing something, even if it’s clumsy, that doesn’t look like somebody else’s work. – William Klein.

A few years ago the magazine Wired had an article about 10 photographs one should ignore. One of them was no other than Ansel Adams. The writer Blake Andrews wrote about him: «Adams created some remarkable images and he wrote the book (literally) on photographic technique. Yet on the whole he’s probably done more harm than good for photography. How many young photographers have fussed over which zone to put the shadows in while the light fades and the photo disappears? More importantly, how many perfectly exposed black and white vistas of snow-capped peaks or rivers snaking into the background do we need to see? Yes, nature is majestic. We get it. Saint Ansel showed us, and he did it better than you ever will, so move on already or we’ll score your performance as a negative.» Point made, I should add.

To sum up my point then: The world doesn’t need another Ansel Adams. It needs a genuine you.

On a different note: For the next two weeks I will take some time off from blogging – I am actually gonna have some holidays, padling and travelling and visiting friends. But alas, by mid July I will be back blogging again. See you again then. Have a great summer (if you are in the northern hemisphere) or great winter (for those of you in the southern hemisphere).

Technique for Its Own Sake

Just before the weekend, I bought myself a new camera. Nothing much to write a blog post about, really. But then I thought about how little excitement I felt about the acquisition—and how good that actually is. Which, then, is why I now write about my new camera.

My point, of course, is that a camera is only a tool, something we need in order to be able to take photos. The camera, whatever kind it is, or however expensive it is, doesn’t matter much. It goes back to the old saying; it’s not the camera but the man or woman behind the camera that matters.

When I got my new camera, I set it up and customized it so it works the same way as my other cameras for easy transition between the cameras I work with. Then I took a few test shot, was happy with the result, and put it in my camera bag. Yesterday I used it for an assignment—and all is back to normal by now.

I have not always been this laidback about my cameras. In fact, I think that goes for a lot of people who photograph—and certainly photographers. There is always something special about a new camera and camera technique in general—at least for many photographers. You don’t need to be a camera geek or a technical wizard to be able to take pleasure in the technical aspect of photography. When I started with photography, I certainly was in that place. Not that I wasn’t interested in the final result, the photographs, but I enjoyed handling the cameras and the equipment as well, and I was definitely excited whenever I acquired a new piece of equipment. Today I know that technique is okay, but also that it’s very easy to get stuck in it.

Technique for its own sake is meaningless, at least if you are out there photographing and intending to create personal and moving photos.

When I first picked up a camera with a more serious intention, I got caught up with the technical aspect of photography. I learned as much as I could about the craft, I quickly found out about all settings my camera had to offer, I read about optics, camera functionalities, composition and so on, and I took sharp, well-exposed and well-composed photos—mostly at least. But the pictures all lacked soul, although at the time I didn’t think so. This was in my late teens and into the beginning of my twenties. Back then, I would not even consider a photograph that was not technically perfect or at least of good quality. These days I have come around 180 degrees. Today, if I had to choose between the two—a meaningful picture that is technically poor and a meaningless picture that is photo-technically unassailable—I unhesitatingly would choose the first.

Of course, back in those days we needed to understand the craftsmanship more than we do today. We shot with unforgivable film, the cameras where manual, without autofocus and mostly without automatic exposure modes. We had to know how to set the shutter speed, the aperture and we had to focus manually, with films that had little latitude and was expensive, at least for a young man still not making tons of money. Although all this craftsmanship I needed to learn did not help me create photos with any soul and heart at the time, it became a backbone when I finally was able to let loose and started to adapting towards a more creative approach (so don’t get me wrong; the technical aspect of photography is an important part of it all).

The turnaround came when I studied photography at the International Center of Photography in New York. I came with the idea that I was already a proliferate photographer, and got completely frustrated when my fellow students and my teachers clearly did not think the same. However, instead of closing myself down inside a shell, I pushed on and pushed through and finally started to listened to my heart more than the craftsmanship I had so believed in before. So, yes, it is all too easy to get stuck in the technique.

The morale is simple: Cameras are not important. You behind it are.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken a Canon EOS-5D and a 28-135 mm lens set at 93 mm. Shutter speed: 1/200 s. Aperture: f/13. The camera (the one I photographed) was placed on a light table and lit with a flash from the front. The photo was processed in Lightroom.

The New Visual Language

I come from a tradition of classical story telling with my photos. It’s the way documentary photographers have emphasized both content and moment in the stories each of their photographs tell. My friend and colleague, Sven Creutzmann, comes from the same tradition. And this—you may call it traditional visual language—is what we teach in our workshop, like the one in Cuba earlier this month.

We are not stuck in the way we see photography and of course let each student develop his or her own voice. At least that’s what we try to stress for ourselves as well as the students and that’s really our focus. Even though we believe in the classical use of visual language, I think it’s fair to say that we are both open to other approaches in ways of shooting and expressing oneself.

Nevertheless, over the last many years, we have seen a shift in how for instance award winning documentary photography are less and less accentuating the clear story telling, and we have both been puzzled by this change. In documentary photography, a more artistic or ambiguous approach has become more prevalent. Personally, I like photos that are open to interpretations, in which the message is not clearly set by the photographer, and where there are layers of understanding embedded in the photo. However, the photos that win these contests have quite often baffled both Sven and me.

It’s the postmodern or even post-postmodern school of young photographers that are now dominating the spearhead of photojournalism. It’s a kind of photography that is often described as deconstructed in which traditional rules or guidelines are broken in order to create a new visual language. Again, I am one who promotes not following any rules or established guidelines. However, I have found a lot of this new photography rather boring, drab and uninteresting. As I wrote in my post The Emperor’s New Clothes? a couple of years ago, the postmodern approach is often plain and boring—almost as intended—but is raised to the sky by pretentious acclamation.

I admit. This sounds like an old, outdated photographer ranting about times that are changing. And maybe I am. Still, I have always been one to push myself and try to go into unknown territory. So, after Sven and I were done with this year’s photo workshop, we decided to sit down and figure out what this new visual language is. We looked up a bunch of award winning photographers and tried to deconstruct their deconstructed photography. I tell you, the result was quite surprising.

To quickly sum up what we found: One aspect that we took away was the fact that a lot of the photography we looked at for us would have been mistakes we wouldn’t have selected and certainly not submitted to any photo competitions. Furthermore and to be more specific, we found that these photos often put elements in the foreground that are unsharp and add a visual disorder to the imagery. Photographers who shoot with this new visual language move further back or move out of the story (whereas I always teach that you cannot get close enough). They seem to capture in-between-moments where Sven and I have trained ourselves to be able to capture the peak of a moment. They use less wide-angle lenses and they often shoot reflections or through windows or openings. They often include weird details or something that is not quite clear what is and often the composition is static or symmetric. Their photos are often simplified and does not try to build a story, at least not in a classical sense, and part of this is that they often do not include moments at all (not only off-moments as already mentioned) nor people. Finally, we found that many of these photos are heavily worked over in post-production.

One thing that puzzled us was why some of these approaches were used, until a friend of us who is not a photographer, told us that maybe it’s to leave more open to interpretation instead of showing a clear-cut story, simply to be less clear. Of course, that is at least part of it.

Deconstructing is one thing, though. After having done so, Sven and I went out in the streets of Havana and tried to shoot with this new visual language as a template. At first, it felt a little weird and uncomfortable, but it didn’t take long before both of us got a sense of freedom in our shooting. The next couple of hours we completely lost ourselves in the process and captured thousands of photos. We had fun, we felt inspired and it was simply liberating to do something completely different.

Even the result took us aback. I am not saying this is amazing work, by far. But it certainly gave me a different perspective (you can judge by yourself). I think I am more open to the new visual language. Furthermore, I am sure I will pick up what this lesson taught me. It won’t shift my photography completely, but I have gotten a new tool in my photographic tool box. I really enjoyed this new visual language. Of course, by now what is new has already moved ahead to a new place. But that’s OK. I will just have to repeat this exercise every so often.

The Inherent Property of Photography

This post will actually be about technique, more specifically the aperture. Most photographers know that a combination of shutter speed and aperture together ensure a correct exposure whether it’s on a digital sensor or on film. But the aperture has a much more profound role to play in terms of visual language. It determines the depth of field of any photograph. It can make everything from close-up to infinity seem sharp or it can make the focus only a couple of inches wide and knock everything else out of focus. How can we use that creatively? Fundamentally in two ways. By reducing the depth of field we can make the viewer focus on the main subject or we can create an illusion of three-dimensional depth in the photograph.

The fact that a picture in itself is two-dimensional gives rise to special challenges in order to transform the perception of three-dimensional depth onto the flat surface. Depth is simply missing in any picture. It’s not a new challenge and it’s something painters through time have dealt with in various ways. Among other means they have used perspective to bring out a feeling of depth. The ancient Egyptions rendered a man at the far end of a row of marching soldiers as large as the man closest to the observer, and thus really didn’t create much feeling of depth. The old Chinese did the same on their rice paper paintings, but they were still able to create a feeling of depth. They always placed near object down in the left corner and faraway objects in the upper right corner of the frame. So even if a mountain in the foreground and a mountain in the background were rendered at the same size, the painting would still be perceived as being three-dimensional. Eventually painters, particularly in Europe, started to utilized convergence of parallel lines and diminution of object size to create a feeling of depth. And during the Renaissance they even went to extremes, by exaggerating the effects of convergence and diminution.

With the use of limited depth of field it’s possible to create another sensation of depth. The eye can only focus on one plane at a time. Objects in front of or behind this plane appear more blurred the farther away they are from it. As a result, contrasts between sharpness and blur, creates an impression of depth. This is something we can use creatively in our photographic language. A shallow depth of field will at the same time make the eye stay on whatever is focused and this it’s a great way to clean up an otherwise messy or chaotic background.

Most people know that the use of a wide angel lens results in more depth of field than the use of a telephoto lens. But it’s not quite true. What really matters is the scale of the object rendered. If you move in with a wide angel lens so that the object is rendered at the same scale on the image sensor as with a longer lens, the depth of field will be the same with the same aperture, albeit the perspective will be completely different. With this in mind it should also make sense that a camera with a small sensor, give rise to more depth field compared to one with a larger picture frame. As a matter of fact most point-and-shoot cameras have so small sensors that it’s virtually impossible to effectively limit the depth of field. That is why so many photographers chose a so-called full-framed camera, simply to have more options to play with (among other qualities). So to summarize: The only two factors that affect the depth of field are scale and size of the aperture. Use it wisely in your visual expression!