Make the Picture Better!

Eldre mann ser på kvinnene i hjelpeorganisasjonen Paradiso som danser

You are standing there with you camera in your hand. In front of you is something you want to capture a picture of, maybe because is a memorable moment, maybe because is a beautiful panorama, maybe because it’s something that touches your heart, or maybe for a complete different reason. The question then is how can I get the best image out of whatever it is I want to photograph? Today it’s so easy with any camera to just raise it to your eye and let the camera do its thing. Push the button and think no more of it. Most likely the result will be correctly exposed and quite an OK picture.

But what if you want to get more than just an OK picture? If you want to make it into a personal statement? Make it interesting for others that don’t have memories associated with the moment of capture? Then you have to start making conscious decisions, and you have to put more of yourself into the picture capturing process. In so doing it might be useful to split the picture taking up into five different decisive components and look at them separately, assess each of them in order to make them as superior as possible. The five factors you can affect or change when taking a picture are the content, the light, the moment, the graphics and the point of view.

Let me quickly go through them. Content is everything – is something I always teach in my workshops. If the content is boring there is nothing you can do to make a picture interesting. The interesting thing, which I see again and again, is that nothing is really ever too boring to be photographed. What makes the difference is the photographer. If the subject engages the photographer, he or she will always be able to make a telling image out of it. If not – no way! You simply have to connect with your heart as I have talked much about on this blog before.

We all know that photography literally means to paint with light. Light is important; it sets the mood in a picture, creates depth and brings out the beauty in a subject. When you stand there in front of something you want to photograph, think about how it’s possible to improve the light in one way or another. Maybe just turning around to get the light from a different angel, or move the subject to another place with better light, add artificial light – or maybe wait till a better time of the day when for instance the sun is lower on the sky or it’s hidden behind a cloud.

There is always a moment when a picture comes together, when the composition and the content almost mysteriously reaches a higher level. It was the renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson who came up with the phrase the decisive moment. He said «it is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that even its proper expression.» It’s easy to detect a moment in sports, for instance when a high jumper lays flat over the bar or when a goal is score in football. But there is always a moment, even in more subtle situations. It could be nothing but a sudden shy smile from a person, some kind of interaction between two people, a reaction, a person crossing into a cityscape. Even in landscape picture taking there are better moments, for instance when the sun is rising or when a rainy day clears up and there is still both rain and a bit of sunshine or when the moon is sweeping the scenery. In other words there are quick moments and there are slow moment – but there is always a better moment.

When I use the word graphics I mean composition, the placement of elements, the perspective, use of depth of field, a slow or a fast shutter speed, etcetera. This very much comes down to the craftsmanship of photography. Sometimes you have all the time in the world to make the graphics come together in the best way, other times you have to react instinctively when the moment comes on you very fast. It’s all about training you eyes to see the potential in all subjects. And it’s always possible to improve a photograph’s graphics. Don’t just go for the first and easy solution. Move around; try out different angels, increase or decrease contrast, work out details in Photoshop.

The last component of the picture capturing process to control, point of view, should probably have been mentioned first. It’s the least tangible of the five, but in a way it goes before the other decisions and forms how you want to put the photograph together. With the point of view in this context I don’t mean perspective, but why you take a picture. What is it that moves you to take it and what is it that you want to convey or tell the viewers with your picture? It is closely connected to content, but in a more conscious way. If you for instance want to show the misery of a homeless person you need to figure out what you really want to say.

Of these five components of the picture capturing process, the ones that have the most impact of how strong a picture is conceived is content and moment. In our workshops we let students bring along their favourite pictures by other photographers. When we go through them we let the students give points to how the photographer have solved the various decisions he or she did with respect to these components. Again and again it turns out it’s content and moment, much to most students surprise. In other words put your emphasize on these, and don’t worry if the technique is not perfect. Nevertheless it’s good practise to evaluate all the components before taking a photograph. You might not be able to improve all of them in a certain situation, but surely you will at least be able to improve one or two in order to make a better and more interesting picture. Think about these five components as a useful tool in the picture making process.

This is something I will talk more about in my upcoming photographic eWorkshop. More info about the workshop will soon follow.

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The Inherent Property of Photography


It’s about time for me to continue something I started long time ago. It’s time to talk a little bit more about the visual language – primarily in photography.

But first: I want to thank everyone who has participated in the last rounds of discussion about the dialectic tension between craftsmanship and vision. Of course it’s not a new discussion. It has been an ongoing discourse as long as mankind has expressed him- or herself through the arts, and it’s a debate that surely will never end. Still, I find it kind of amazing that the two camps often seem to stick to their grounds, and never the twain shall meet. I am surprised about the fact that some think that technical knowledge is about rules, for instance, when it really is about possibilities. I am even more amazed when some think technique comes down to camera brands, or what lenses you use. Whatever camera you are using has absolutely nothing to do with it. Technique is about how you use whatever camera you have to express whatever your vision is.

This post will actually be about technique – so forgive me those of you who aren’t interested in photography or at least the craft of photography. I am not going to talk about how to get a perfect exposure or any technique for technique’s sake, though. Because that is something modern cameras are more than capable enough to take care of themselves, at least 90 per cent of the time. No, I want to talk about how you can affect your visual expression by technical tweaking. Some time ago I wrote the post The Essential Property of Photography. It was about the most distinctive element of the photographic language that relates to the shutter of the camera. Today I want to focus on the aperture. The element of the photographic language related to the aperture is a less specific property of photography than that of the shutter. The visual result of using the aperture creatively, photography has to share with videos and films. Even the eye function the same way, although we hardly recognize it ourselves because of the eye’s enormous capability to adjust. Nevertheless when aperture was launched with the first cameras it introduced a visual element that hadn’t really been seen in the arts before: That of limited depth of field. And that’s what I want to talk a little bit about today.

We all know that a combination of shutter speed and aperture together ensure a correct exposure whether it’s on a digital sensor or on film. And as I said, this is something the camera is good at. Basically. But the aperture has a much more profound role to play in terms of visual language. It determents 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!

A Tool for Our Heart and Soul


I want to follow up my last posting and extend the thoughts I expressed regarding the tension between Eros and Logos. Or between the craft and the heart, where many see craft as a barrier between the heart and the art. What they tend to forget is that craft is a living exchange. By craftsmanship we breathe life into our artistic work; by craftsmanship we transmit and transfer our vision into an artistic expression. In addition craftsmanship provides a means for our own growth and development and asks for us to tunnel our mind, heart and soul through the technical possibilities and requirements of whatever artistic medium we are working with.

At the same time we should not look upon craft solely as a technical requirement of the medium. We shouldn’t just feel forced to learn about the technique of the artistic medium in order to be able to express whatever our vision is, or feel opposed to it because it hinders the same expression. And we should definitely not raise technique into an objective of its own. Technique merely represents the tools, the study of the shaping means of our work. Technique alone, without the guiding influence of the mind and heart, is sterile. While it is desirable and undeniably useful to maintain a respect and appreciation for the best tools or elegant solutions, it is important to avoid the common trap of mistaking technical excellence for the soul of creative expression.

Craft must be put into service of our vision. It comes down to using our bodies, minds and hearts and extending them through craftsmanship and our work with the physical material. As a matter of fact the craft is an extension of ourselves. It doesn’t matter which art form we are talking about. The camera is an extension of the eye, the paintbrush and pen an extension of the hand and arm, the potter’s wheel an extension of the centred presence of the human body. And so it is even with computers, for those of us who channel our work through digital tools. The computer and the action of the silicon chip, with its billions of instructions per second, is a metaphor for an extension of the human nervous system, the human brain. The child starts by painting directly with its fingers, later on we start to use tools as an extensions of ourselves. But basically and at its most simple level it’s all the same.

Thus, we shouldn’t raise technique up as god itself. Neither should we fall into the trap of seeing craftsmanship as an obstruction between our heart and our work – and to be avoided. Because by knowledge of craftsmanship we are better capable of making the transition from heart and soul to artistic expression. I find it strange that particularly in photography technical knowledge has gain a bad reputation by some artists. It’s look down upon as geeky or of interest for only those who don’t care about the art. But again the craft is only a tool – and a useful tool in the creative process. Nobody asks whether an author needs to know the grammar of his or her language. And so it should be with any artistic work. The craft has no use of its own; it is merely a tool for our heart and soul.

Flashed Away





I want to finish up my thoughts about flash photography which I started in my previous post, so I hope you not so technical minded will have me excused one more time – even if it’s going to be less hardcore technical this time. I promise it will be a long time till next before I will do it again. So as to not make it completely worthless to have passed by, I have laid out a handful of pictures to show what you can achieve by using the little shoe mounted flash. I hope those of you who don’t care about technique at least will be able to enjoy those pictures.

Last time I gave the theory behind getting the most out of the flash – and did so by explaining how to use the camera in manual mode. Today I will continue with some thoughts about using flash in automatic mode. One should actually assume that it would be easier and faster – and to some extent it is, but at the same time I have found that it’s impossible to predict how the cameras «think». And unfortunately one camera «thinks» differently than another in automatic flash mode, and one brand seems to «thinks» differently than another. So when going automatic, it’s unavoidable with some trial and error first time out. Anyway the basic idea when going automatic is that the camera itself will do the necessary calculations, as soon as you have put in the ratio of exposure between available light and flash light. Remember the trick to get interesting flash pictures when using a shoe mounted (or handheld) flash is to combine available light with flash light.

On a basic level most cameras «think» that whatever exposure compensation you dial in on the camera will affect the whole exposure – the combined exposure of the two light sources that is, while exposure compensation dialled in on the flash itself will only affect the flash light. So to return to the two basic setups from my last posting: If you want to equally blend available light and flash light, you actually don’t do anything, because the camera will automatically take care of the mix and adjust the exposure – which means underexpose both so as to make the combination come out correctly. The only thing you need to do is make sure the exposure mode of the camera is not set to program, P, green, red or complete automatic mode – whatever you camera has available for you. This will only set the shutter speed to the sync speed for flash photography and thus result in those regular ugly flash photos with a washed out foreground and a completely black background. My advice is to set the mode to aperture priority which means you yourself set the aperture before taking a photo and the camera automatically takes care of shutter speed. Setting the camera to aperture priority mode makes sure your camera can adjust the exposure to any available light situations. If necessary it can use 1 second or it can use 1/1000 of a second when that is necessary. By the way don’t worry about long exposure time when using flash. The flash will anyway freezes the subject and whatever movement cause by the available light exposure will only add some interesting features to the picture.




One more thing: You need to make sure the camera’s focusing point is locked onto the subject in the front when the reading of the flash exposure and the focusing point is connected. Otherwise the amount of flash light on the subject will probably be way too much since the focusing point may be set on the background.

Now to the other set-up I mentioned last time; fill-in flash or using the flash to lighten up dark shadows. In automatic mode you set the flash to -2 or two exposure values down. That’s it, and the camera will supposedly take care of the rest. In another word, you use the exposure compensation on the flash to adjust the ration between available light and flash light, while the exposure compensation on the camera will affect the combined exposure. That is; if you want to make the combined exposure lighter or darker you use the exposure compensation on the camera. If you want to increase or decrease the amount of flash light relative to available light you use the exposure compensation on the flash.

What if you only have a point-and-shoot camera? Can you get interesting flash pictures with those cameras? Quite few actually have a so-called slow sync flash setting, which will do exactly what I have talked about here. You just don’t have equal amount of possibilities to adjust particularly the ratio of light between available and flash light.

One last point: If you use your camera in manual mode and use the built-in exposure meter, be aware of the fact that when you turn on the flash it will most likely adjust the readings to compensate for the added flash. So if you want to work manually, you need to meter the exposure of available light before switching on the flash.

In a Flash of Moment


Today’s blog is going to be more for the mere photographic minded (and I hope the rest of you will forgive me for that). I don’t usually write about technique, because there is plenty of information about how to handle a camera out there – and I am more interested in the creative process of photography anyway. But this time I will make an exception, simply because the technique I am about to describe may boost creativity as well.

This post is going to be about how to make a shoe mounted flash not only work, but give an interesting and quite different look to your pictures. Flash pictures you may ask? That is always gonna be harsh contrast, lousy quality and no control on your part… But really, no! Before the digital era I used to be sharp and very good at using flash. I had to. Back then I was shooting slides, and to get the best quality I would usually use a slow film at 100 iso or even Kodachrome 64. When light went low, you had to be able to either use a flash or set up a whole shebang of lighting equipment. I got good with the handheld flash. At some point I almost as a rule used the flash – day or night. It became part of my signature. But when the digital era took over, suddenly I didn’t need the flash any more, I could just ramp up the iso-setting of the camera, and I was able to shoot in any lighting condition. How cool was that! I packed down the flash, and never look back again. Until recently that is. Not long ago I finally dug into my camera bag again, and found the old flash (and found out that I actually had to buy a new one, too), because it’s not bad at all, but really just another creative device in my toolbox – when I need that special look.

The main factor for success with the shoe mounted flash (or even better if you hold it in your hand with an extension cord) is to mix available light and light from the flash. And the trick to gain control of this mix is to think about the process as taking two pictures on the same frame – even though it happens at the same time – in one exposure. First you take a picture with the available light and then you take the same picture with the flash (or the other way around, if you like to think about it that way, because it really doesn’t matter, it’s only a mental exercise; as I said it happens simultaneous – at least for the argument here). And what happens when you add two pictures on top of each other? The two light sources will add up and make the final picture lighter – too light. Which means you will have to make each captured picture darker, so the total adds up to a correct exposure. Thus you will have to underexpose them.

Let’s see how that works in real life. And I will start with explaining two useful set-ups using manual exposure control. That will make it easier to understand the process, even if you are never going to shoot manually. Let’s say you are shooting indoor. You want to take advantage of the special look you can get from mixing equally available light and light from the flash. To get a correct added exposure you set the camera so that it underexposes the subject lit by available light with 1 exposure value (either stop down the aperture one step or cut the exposure time in half). And you set the flash 1 exposure value down, too. Where the flash hit the subject the total of the two underexposed pictures (which albeit is but one frame) will give you a correct exposure, while where only available light is picked up, the subject – usually the background – will be underexposed and that is fine. It doesn’t sound too difficult does it? Try it out!

Here is the other set-up I mentioned I would explain: It’s midday sunshine. The shadows under the nose and in the eye sockets of the person you want to photograph are black. Not to mention if the person wears a hat. Time to mount the flash again. But this time you will only underexpose the flash. You set it to minus 2 exposure values. The exposure for the available light is as if no flash was added. That’s it; you are good to go with a so-called fill-in flash. Two exposure values down on the flash doesn’t sound like a lot, but it actually brings the light from the flash so much down, that it will only affect the shadows. That’s why you with this set-up don’t need to underexpose the available light. Here is the beauty: You can mix any ration of available light and flash as long as the sum of the two exposure values you step down are -2. In the first step-up the available light was -1 and the flash -1. Hence the sum is -2. In the second setup the available light was 0 and the flash -2. Again the sum is -2. So if you want to give a little more flash than the equal set-up in the beginning, you could for instance go for -½ EV for the flash and -1½ EV for the the available light. The sum is still -2. It works!

I’ll stop now, and get back to the automatic approach next time. I have already written too way too much, despite the fact that in my previous post I complain about myself too often writing too long texts. So thank you for staying to the end.

A Good Photograph, What is that?


What is that makes a photograph good? Photographers through all times have pondered over this question as have artists in any other creative fields about their kind work. There isn’t really a simple answer to the question, and the opinions are definitely divided. But some time ago I came across a book by the renowned, now pasted away, photographer Andreas Feininger. The Complete Colour Photographer from 1969 is quite a thorough and remarkable book, and despite the title of the book it only has a handful of colour plates. Mostly the book consists of Feininger’s thoughts about photography, and he is expressing them very clearly and with sincerity.

One place he writes about what makes a photograph good. For him it comes down to four components: Stopping power, purpose and meaning, emotional impact and graphic quality. Let me quote a few phrases from the books, since I think Andreas Feininger has a very profound understanding and a useful perspective on the issue.

«Stopping power: To produce any kind of an effect, a photograph must first of all be noticed. Unfortunately, today, people are so satiated with photographs that a picture must have some rather unusual qualities to receive attention. To command it, a photograph must have stopping power.

Stopping power is that quality which makes a photograph visually unusual – “outstanding” insofar as it stands out among other pictures. Its essence is surprise or shock effect. Without stopping power, photographs easily go unnoticed – and an unnoticed photograph is a wasted statement.

Purpose and Meaning: To make a photograph good, more is needed than stopping power which, in essence, is merely the equivalent of a blinker light – a device to attract attention. Having caught the observer’s eye, a photograph must have something to hold his interest. It must say something, give something, make the viewer think and somehow enrich his experience. It must have purpose and meaning.

Although the terms “purpose” and “meaning” are often used interchangeably, their connotations are subtly different, and I feel that this fine distinction can be of help to the photographer. As I see it, in photography, purpose is equivalent to the intent of the photographer – the “why” of the photograph; meaning is equivalent to the content of the picture – the “what” of the photograph.

Emotional impact: In a similar way that a photograph’s purpose and meaning are aimed at the viewer’s intellectual faculties, a picture’s emotional impact is directed towards the heart.

In order to create pictures with emotional impact it is essential that the photographer himself feels the emotions which he wishes to convey to others through his work. It is for this reason that I consider genuine interest in a subject the first condition for making good photographs.

Graphic Quality: In order to communicate, a photographer must express his intent with graphic means – the lines, forms, colors, and other marks which form the picture, the instruments of visual representation indispensable to expressing ideas, concepts, and images through the medium of photography which in combination give a photograph its graphic quality.»

Andreas Feininger’s work has delighted millions of people all over the world. His pictures appeared in many European and American magazines – notably in Life, for which he was a staff photographer for nearly twenty years.

Three Pictures to Get the One

As photographers (or people interested in photographing) we are mostly concerned about the end result. The final picture. But to get that far and get the best result it is useful to think of the photographic process divided into three steps involving three different pictures. The whole process starts with a picture in our head, reacting to whatever makes us want to make a photograph. Then there is the picture captured by the image sensor by the camera. And finally we have the finished post-processed picture, the one that the two previous pictures have lead up to. The two firsts are only steps on the way, but being conscious about the whole process might help clear our vision and getting it express in the most telling and best possible way. All three pictures have their own approach and their own variables we need to make decisions about. They need to be treated quite differently and be recognised for their own right.

Let’s start with the beginning, the picture in our head, what we see that will end up as a photograph in one way or another – or hopefully so. Something makes us react to a subject matter or a subject and triggers our desire to photograph. We form a picture of some sort in our mind that is a blue print for what might become. But what is it that makes us want to photograph this particular subject matter? I think there are four mechanisms that can trigger this first step of the process. Let me use an example. I am walking down the beach an early morning, enjoying the first morning light. In the periphery of my vision I see a boat dragged up on the beach. It seems interesting to me and as I get closer I believe this might well become a picture. I start to form an idea of the picture in my mind. This idea can either be triggered by some similarity to other pictures of boats I have previously seen and liked – either my own or somebody else’s. It can also be that the subject matter or subject triggers something emotionally or brings up some form of attachment in me independently of its actual picture value, but makes me want to try to make a picture out of it. Boats might be something I have always been interested in for example. It might also be that the inherent quality of the subject matter independently of myself sets off a desire to photograph it, for example the way the boat has been built, its colours or the way the sun shines upon it. This is a more contemplative approach to photography, which I will address on its own in a future post. In addition I might actually have a more unconscious approach. I might just be walking around on the beach desperately searching for something to photographing, and the boat seems to be the only thing there. So why not give it a try.

None of the approaches are more right or better than the others, and most likely a combination of two or more are involved. In addition when we start to form an idea about a potential picture in our head, we can either start to work around it by pre-visualising the end result or by just working around it in a more intuitive and open way. Again one is not better than the other, although many photographers state that to get the best end result one needs to be able to pre-visualise the picture. I do not necessarily agree. Sometimes a less conscious approach opens up for new possibilities that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen. We might actually get something completely new, by coincident if you want. Again a combination of an intuitive approach and pre-visualisation is most likely happening.

The next step, to capture the picture by the camera’s image sensor, is all about making the transition between the image in our head and the final result as smoothly as possible. It’s about setting up everything for the final outcome, and as such the captured picture has no value of its own. But the approach for some parts is different if you shot in raw or in jpeg while others are the same. At this point some form of pre-visualisation would have taken place in order to make a decision about shutter speed or depth of field – that is if you don’t trust the camera’s program setting. This is more about the visual expression that a technical matter, although the combination, exposure, is somewhat technical, too. And that’s where the difference between raw and jpeg comes in. If you shoot jpeg you want to get the exposure as close to the end result as possible while in raw you want to make the picture as light as possible without clipping the highlights – no matter how dark the final picture will actually be. With jpeg you need to get it correct right away while in raw you have more slack and want to take advantage of the fact that the lightest exposure value in a captured picture has 1024 tones while the darkest exposure value only has 64 tones. So when you are shooting raw it’s easy to make a picture darker in post-production but not good for the quality to make a picture lighter. In addition when shooting raw you don’t need to think about white balance since it will be taken care of later on in converting the raw format to either tiff or jpeg. While shooting in jpeg again you have to get it right at the point of capture. It’s very hard to correct later on in Photoshop. (I am sorry this became more technical than usual).

The last step involves creating the final output, usually in Photoshop or some other image processing program. Libraries have been written about this, and I don’t have space to go into this part of the process – not now anyway. I will just say that this is when you bring out and realize whatever you had pre-visualised when you took the picture – if you had. Or you just play around and see whatever you can get out of the picture. Again nothing is more right than the other – in the end it’s the final result that counts. Nobody asks how you got it. Still, by being conscious about the whole process involving the three pictures needed for making the one, you will have a better chance of succeeding. The more you know about all steps, the more you are able to see as potential pictures in the first place. And that’s where it all starts, after all.

Live Your Photographs

Why is it that some photographers are able to come up with wonderful and engaging pictures even about the smallest trivial details that most of us wouldn’t even consider worth a picture – not only once in a while, but again and again? While others make nice, well composed pictures about important and presumably engaging subjects, but still never manage to engage with their pictures? What is the secret of the profound artistry of the former? The answer of course isn’t a simply list of properties an upcoming photographer – or any artist for that matter – needs to learn and understand about her trade to excel. It’s probably a little more complex than that. Nevertheless I don’t think there are any secrets to the engaging artist, although it’s still a kaleidoscope of characteristics that goes along with artistic excellence.

For one, the photographer who manage to engage us with his pictures, has found his own style, not by specific techniques or postproduction manipulation, but coming naturally from within – as I wrote about in my previous posting. Another feature about the engaging photographer is that she herself is engaged in what she photographs. I think this is something we all need to learn. We need to have interest in what we photograph; we need to feel that our subject is something or someone we can relate to ourselves. What we really need is to want to photograph, not for economic reasons, for fame, for stock, for publishing reasons, for someone else, but because the picture matter to ourselves. The reason? The engaging picture is actually a picture of ourselves. It reflects our own life.

If you feel that your pictures are boring and not engaging, maybe it’s because you life isn’t as exciting as you really want it to be? I repeat again; our pictures reflect of own life. Mind you, I am not talking about the grand expedition, being the big adventurer or living la vida loca, but really just living the life that is fulfilling to you. If you thrive with home sweet home, that’s where you will find your pictures, those pictures that will engage all of us, too. Ernest Hemingway once said «In order to write about life, first you must live it!» If you exchange the word write with photograph, you will get the equivalent for us photographers. Of course it’s not easy to live up to Hemingway’s way of living the grand life, but that’s not the point. The point really is; if you want to tell something as an artist, you need to live it. You are your photographs – no matter what you actually photograph. If your pictures are boring your life is probably boring, too – for yourself.

That’s where I started out myself. I was good with the technical part of photography. I was good with composing pictures. I had a good eye for light. But I never really engaged anyone with my pictures. It all changed when I started to travel for real, meaning going to countries and places that aren’t made for mass tourism. I started to relate to people on the places I travelled to, and I discovered I enjoyed meeting people. That’s when my pictures switched from beautiful and boring landscape and nature copies to more interesting human stories. And that’s still how it goes. I love photographing people, I love the meeting, I love the interaction, and I love to understand a little bit more about human life. Back then travelling was in many ways just the catalyst, not really a requirement for my engagement. Not any more at least. Today my photos certainly don’t have to be taken in far-away places any more. They might just as well be of my love ones close to me and in my own neighbourhood. It’s not about place – for me – but about people.

I am still an avid outdoor guy, but somehow I have never been able to connect my passion for nature and photography. It also has to be said, that barely any other nature photography – at least the traditional National Geographic kind of nature photography – manages to engage me. Somehow I have to find a way, my own way. But this is something I will get back to in another posting.

Don’t Chase Style

A personal style is like a signature for any photographer. As we at a young age set out on our photographic endeavour this easily becomes a major mantra, and we start searching for our own style. We think we can skew the horizon, and that becomes our style. We think we can make dark and mysterious pictures, and that becomes our style. We think we can increase the colour saturation or do some other post production trick and that becomes our style.

I remember at one point I became very good with my handheld flash, I would even say I became an expert getting the most out of this devise that many photographers otherwise struggle with. Particularly I got very enthusiastic about the result from using open flash. In the end all my picture ended up being shot with open flash. Open flash became my style – or so I thought back then. But I was only fooling myself. I finally realized that style is not something we force our pictures through, like a filter or some magic transformation, in order for it to become «our» signature. Instead of becoming a signature, it becomes a limitation. When my mantra was open flash, I stop looking for other qualities of light that could be used – and better used in many occasions – in my pictures. My craving for a personal style turned in to a self-inflicted inhibition.

Yes, we can impose various styles on our pictures, and should do so to enhance whatever we try to tell with the pictures. But that isn’t the same as a personal style. It’s just using tools we have to our disposal. Chasing style in one way or another is never going to give us a personal signature. There isn’t any quick-fix to the outcome. Style comes with time, and it comes from within. When we stay honest, authentic and true to ourselves in the way we photograph, over time our style will crystallize and become apparent. We get a signature that is not depending on various tricks and enhancements, but is by character a reflection of ourselves. With time we develop our vision – we look for certain aspects of life and emotions and graphical qualities that we related to, and this vision again will develop our personal style. The more conscious we become about our vision, the more clearly our personal style will develop. Style is – put simple – an outcome of becoming aware of our vision.

As for me, open flash has long time ago ceased to be the all-encompassed answer to my lighting needs. As a matter of fact I hardly use flash any more. Today I prefer available light, which is so much more varied and full of depth and tonality than anything I could do with a flash. Still, available light hasn’t become «my» signature, I still use flash when I think it’s appreciate or when it will enhance the visual expression in my pictures.

The Essential Property of Photography


Now that most everything can be done in digital imagery, I find myself more and more searching for the unique visual quality and expression of photography. What is it that makes photography differentiate or stand out from other media of artistic expressions? To even try to look for the answer I first need to define what I mean by photography, again since digital imagery has blurred the transition between most artistic media. Today all kinds of imagery can be blended in digital tools like Photoshop or Illustrator. It’s even hard to say what is what, when for instance CAD (computer-aided design) recreates reality in such convincing ways that the result looks almost more real than the imperfect look of «real» photography. We talk about convergence of media, in that everything can be blended, in that everything mixes together, in that the origin of the final result is hard to tell, in that the tools we use to make images no longer is limited to only one output. We are able to make videos with digital cameras and we can make still photos with video cameras – and so on. This is all very exciting and opens up for previously unthinkable creative possibilities. Still, or maybe as a consequence, I find it valuable or even necessary to keep in mind what is the unique language or visual quality of each media, for instance photography. Now that everything may be mixed and there are so many ways to get to the same result, for me at least, it is helpful to have a deeper understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the various tools and inherent qualities of each media to be able use them most efficiently and to the better of the final result.

We have all read or heard the origin and the Latin meaning of the word photography – almost to unendurable lengths. The word itself still doesn’t give much help to define or limit the definition of what photography as expressive art comprises, since there are so many ways to «draw» with light. Thus we have to go outside of the strict explanation of the word itself. Instead I will use a maybe old fashion understanding of photography. For me photography implies catching something that real exists – reality if you want – by some sort of mechanical devise. Traditionally and generally the photographic media is about rendering and interpreting the real world – in some way or some form – through the technique of photography and its visual language. This is exactly what differentiates photography from other media and artistic expressions. Even the photographical abstraction requires a real and existing object in front of the lens. As far as I am concerned. By this limitation I don’t mean to underrate other media or ways of making photo-like imaginary. It’s just a practical definition.

To proceed one more step and to look at the topic a little bit more concrete, let’s try to elaborate what the visual language of photography really implies. Because rendering and interpreting the real world are properties photography shares with its close cousins, film and video. The very specific property of the still photo is to be found in the photographical process itself. A photograph is nothing more than a capture of time – a moment of time – whether this moment lasts only 1/1000 of a second or is stretched out to eight hours for that matter. No matter the length of the time slot, though, the moment is captured in one single image. When photography came about some 170 years ago the then new media brought with it a complete new language of imagery. On one hand it was able to freeze movements, to capture the climax of the moment in a way that no human eye had ever been able to experience up until then. On the other hand the camera had the ability to collect through long exposure time an event over time into one single frame, and by this show the structure or form of movement, or express a feeling of speed or movement, also in a way that human beings had not be able to before. After the development of photography these new elements of the image language have been adopted and used by other media. Just think about the ever present speed lines in cartoons, they are taken directly from the visual language of photography.

As photographers we need to hold on to the specific properties of the visual language of photography and use them to their utmost advantage. That means catching the moment of time or capturing the pattern of movement. We should strive to capture a sudden and telling expression in a face, the expressive interaction between people, reactions, the play of coincidences or the climax in a game. It can be explosive or it can be subtle. Of course capturing time in one single image is not the only property related to still photography – a handful of other elements come into play as well. Still for me the time capture is the single most specific visual quality of photography. Depth of field for instances is just as important in film or video language as in still photography, and thus less specific for the latter. Even the human vision is influenced by depth of field. I am not trying to devaluate the importance of depth of field in photography, as a matter of fact along with time capture those are the two most expressive visual language elements in the images we created. And to put it into perspective, I would say that those two properties are almost all we need to take into consideration – at least on a superstructural creative level – to created expressive and catching imagery.