Learning to Live (with a Camera)

It’s always fun to observe participants attending our photo workshops in Cuba; In the beginning they are all quite amazed—and for the most part surprised—about how easy it is to photograph Cubans. This is whether they are being photographed on the street or elsewhere. Not the least are the participants astounded about how easy it is to even get invited inside Cuban homes and be able to photograph their intimate and private life.

For most of us, it’s quite intimidating to approach strangers on the street with the intention to photograph them. Of course, if you have never done it before, it’s almost nerve wrecking in the beginning, but also for seasoned photographers it can sometimes take some extra courage to face some stranger on the street.

The ease with which Cubans open up themselves for strangers is one of the reasons why Cuba is one of the better places in the world to practice street photography. During our workshops, we more than once experience the joy with which participants discover they can do something they never thought would be possible. As each day goes, they approach strangers more confidently and even carelessly. Towards the end of the workshop, they don’t even think about it any more. We have had participants crying in the beginning of a workshop because they couldn’t manage to face strangers on the street—or so they though—only to lose them at sight later on, whenever they ventured deeper and deeper into homes and places that no one else would think about going.

So it was with this workshop in May, too. We saw it once again, the anxiety of having to get close on the street shifting to excitement in the meeting with complete strangers and in getting to know them through the process of photographing them. As the week pass, we—my colleague and friend, Sven, and I—push them to go closer and closer and even closer.

When participants start to play along with Cuban music or dancing on the street, we are far beyond the pure photographic experience. We talk about life in all its beauty and richness.

Pushing participants closer and closer is one think that we always need to do, Sven and I, in any workshop we teach. As we say, you can never get too close. In a street photography workshop, this is definitely one of our major missions. And then to push the participants to keep shooting, and the shoot some more. We see it time and again; most untrained photographers may capture one, two or at most five images of a scene or a situation. This is hardly getting started! Whenever we are out on the street with the participants, we have to keep forcing them to stay with a situation, almost to exhaustion, to make sure they capture enough frames. You simple don’t know when the best image will appear.

Get closer. Shoot a lot. And finally: don’t look at the camera’s preview screen. That’s the last of our three commandments for participants during a workshop. Too often, photographers need to check what they have captured all while the situation continues—and they lose maybe the best shot. All this is about being prepared, getting the most out of a given situation and make sure not lose “the” photo.

In the late autumn—in November-December—Sven and I will organize a new workshop in Cuba. This will be quite a different experience. We will travel all over Cuba for two weeks, following the footsteps of Fidel and Che’s revolution.

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Back from Cuba

I have just rounded up my latest workshop in Cuba. As always, it was great fun, both for the participants and me. Cuba is maybe one of the best and easiest places in the world to train in street photography. Everywhere people are extremely relaxed about being photographed, very inviting and friendly. Any inhibition you may feel about approaching strangers on the street will easily evaporate in Cuba. In addition, the colours and the energy of the country make for captivating photos.

So far, I have hardly been able to recap the workshop and the whole experience in Cuba, not the least been able to process much of the thousands of photos I captured during the two weeks I spent in the country. Thus, here and now, I will only show a handful of images taken during the celebration of the international workers’ day on May 1. In later blog posts, I will get back to the workshop itself and of course show more photos both from the workshop and captured on my own.

Let me round up this post by thanking all of you who have commented previous post while I have been away. I have not been able to respond while being in Cuba, simply because internet access is very limited. However, I promise I will get back to each and everyone of you.

On my Way to another Workshop

As I am writing this little post, I am sitting in the airport of Amsterdam on my way to Cuba. I am about to start teaching yet another workshop in this fascinating country. It’s actually ten years since I did my first photo workshop here. Then as now, I am teaching it together with my good friend and colleague Sven Creutzmann.

As with the photography we do, we also try constantly to develop our workshops. The workshop starting up later this week is quite different from the first one we did ten years ago. Hopefully—and I believe it is the case—it’s a better workshop. Of course, that is for the participants to decide.

My flight is about to board, so I have left you with a few photos from last year’s photo workshop here in Cuba. As internet access is really poor in Cuba I most likely won’t be able to post anything again before I am back in Norway.

However, if you find Cuba intriguing, Sven and I are teaching yet another workshop later this year in the end of November and beginning of December. It’s going to be quite a special workshop, following the revolution of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Cuba.

Beautiful Belize

As I wrote in my previous post last week, Belize is foremost known for its amazing nature. Last week I showed the beautiful underwater world along the coast of the very small Central-American country. In addition to diving and various water sports, we also got to spend about a week in the interior, in and around the rain forest. Of course, like any other country in this part of the world, ancient cities of the Mayans and the Pre-Mayans have been discovered throughout the country—and until last century hidden in the rain forest. It’s always something special to visit this abandoned cities with their impressive ruins and structures still standing. I have visited many of them over the years, and this time in Belize, we were able to spend time in another two ancient cities. In addition to photos from Caracol and Xunantunich, here in this post I also show glimpse of daily life in Belize. I am just going to let them stand there without further comment.

Into a Different World

After a long winter with much snow and low temperatures, I openly admit I have immensely enjoyed two weeks of the warm, dry season in Belize. It’s been two fabulous weeks of holiday. No chores, no schedules, no stress and no phone calls.

Belize is foremost know for its amazing nature, whether we talk about the lush rainforest, the many impressive caves, or the country’s extraordinary coastline protected by one of the biggest underwater reefs in the world. I got to spend one of my two holiday weeks exploring these reefs with their colourful abundance of corrals, fishes and other sea life.

The photographer in me went wild as soon as I immersed myself into this different world. Since I wasn’t on assignment I felt free to do whatever I fancied. I could play and I could let go of any inhibitions or fixed ideas about how a photograph ought to look like. The pure change of environment—compared to what I usually photograph—was inspiring in and of itself. It was just as if the different nature, literally and figuratively, of the underwater world impelled this more playful approach—all the way from the moment of capturing to the final processing.

To capture the extraordinary life you find in and around corral reefs in a compelling way requires both extensive experience as an underwater photographer as well as good diving skills. Since I don’t possess either—as I am not diving enough on a regular basis—I tried to bring my regular photographic vision down into the underwater world.

Instead of looking for amazing creatures and trying to capture them, I would rather play with many elements within the frame, whether it was divers, a fish incidentally passing by or the corral reef itself. I would try to find meaningful or funny juxtapositions and above anything I was looking for space and trying to create a stage for everything to coincide on. This idea of a stage has become one of the backbones in my visual approach. It has the same purpose as a stage in a theatre. It holds the story of the photo together and creates a three-dimensional impression. In the underwater world, instead of photographing a fish up against the corral reef, I would turn around and try to capture some of the open sea behind it or even a diver in the background. It’s like props and backdrops on a theatre stage.

With this post I have selected a handful and a half of the many photos I took at the reef in Belize. I hope you enjoy them as a glimpse into a different world.

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.

Develop Your Photography

Learning is a way to both improve and to develop. I believe in lifelong learning—as long as I am willing to learn I stay alive. There are many ways to replenish one’s knowledge and further develop oneself. Personally I find attending workshops one of the most inspiring ways to learn and develop. I try to attend at least one workshop every year. For me there is something about the format of workshops, being incredibly attractive and just evoking pure stimulation. This goes for whether I am a student or a teacher.

This year I am planning to teach more photo workshops than I have ever done in any year before. I am setting up two complete new workshops, in addition once again to organizing two workshops that have been successful in the past. They should cater to any level or interests of photography, whether you are a beginner or already a pro, whether you want to dig in and really develop your photographic voice or just want to have fun while getting a better grip on your photography.

I hope one of the workshops I offer may trigger your desire to further develop and learn. Maybe travel to a place you have not been to before, or maybe finally spending full time immersing yourself in a photographic learning experience. I promise your photography will progress profoundly during any of the workshops. I say so based on having taught workshops for more than ten years and not the least from responses from former workshop participants. As one participant stated: “The workshop was all about constructive critique that inspired to stretch myself to levels I had never perceived before. I believe I am a better photographer today than I was 10 days ago.”

This year I will for, the first time, teach a workshop in England. It’s going to be an extended weekend in the picturesque and distinctive city of Bath. We will stroll around in the historical city, which is built on a heritage extending back to Roman time and beyond. “Street Photography in Bath” will run from September 21th to 24th.

The other completely new workshop is going to be quite an experience. I am really proud to be able to offer a two weeks combined photo tour and workshop in Cuba, where we will follow the footsteps of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and their revolution. I am teaching the workshop together with my friend and colleague, Sven Creuztmann. We will visit cities with important landmarks for the two revolutionaries fought, we will visit places that most visitors to Cuba never get to see and we will go deep into the mountains where the revolution started. “In the Footsteps of a Revolution” takes place from November 24th to December 7th.

The workshops I have taught before will run in spring. I will once again do the intimate photo workshop about how to develop your photographic expression in my hometown of Bergen, Norway. It’s going to be a very small workshop where we meet up in my apartment, when we are not shooting the streets of Bergen. “The Personal Expression” runs from June 15th to 17th.

Finally, Sven and I are running our regular workshop in Cuba this May. It’s a one week photo workshop, and one of my most popular. We already have a good group signed up for the workshop, but there are still some spots left. “Cuba in Essence” takes place from May 5th to 17th.

Maybe one of these workshops could be something for you? I would love to have you come along.

Pure Light

Sometimes I feel I have been struck with pure luck when I am out shooting. I am sure you have all felt it at some point. When suddenly the light is right, you are at the right place and the right time and everything is just set up for capturing enchanting photos. Of course, most times, it feels like the opposite, but every so often, all variables come together as if it was meant to be.

Such was the time when I was out enjoying the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, USA, between Christmas and New Year. My love one and I had decided to spend a handful of days at the north-eastern-most point of the contiguous United State. It wasn’t a photo trip as such, but of course I had brought my camera and some lenses.

One day when we visited Shi Shi Beach, the afternoon sun bathed the coastline with golden and forming light. It came out through layers of clouds, streaming like ethereal rays from the sky above. Even I, who don’t regard myself as a nature photographer, felt the majestic pull of the landscape.

The afternoon went flying with capturing the scenery. I concentrated my approach to capture light and shadows together with the structures and forms of the landscape; the rocks, waves that hit the coast and the beach itself. It was all about graphics and lights. However, the intense and low sun made for such immense contrasts that it was at times almost impossible to capture it all. I set the exposures so that the highlights would be rendered within the latitude of the sensor’s capabilities (and even a little overexposed since I am working with RAW files that allows for some recovery of burned out highlights). Still the shadows would grow almost completely black. That was one reason why I concentrated on capturing strong graphic images rather than rich and full sceneries or details.

To further enhance the challenges with the harsh contrasts, the best images were captured with the sun streaming directly into the lens. Backlight creates dramatic photos but is also challenging to control. If nothing else, it surely widens the contrast significantly. Sometimes I didn’t even had to take any photos—there was no way I could handle the contrasts, but at other times when I overcame the challenges, I surely was rewarded with spectacular images.

I am usually a wide-angle photographer, but this time I had brought my 100-400 lens in addition to my regular lenses. It’s a lens I rarely use, but I knew with the rock formations at the coast of the Olympic Peninsula it would come in handy to compress the perspective. On the other hand I had to work harder to render some feeling of three-dimensionality since the long telephoto lenses flatten the images. However, challenges are always fun, and working to overcome both contrasts and two-dimensionality increased the sensation of being in a special place and time.

I hope you enjoy the handful of images I show here from the trip.

Last Week’s Instagram

Once a week—or every so often—I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last week. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. Except for the technical details beneath the pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Panasonic Lumix LX-100 with the lens set at 10,9 mm (the equivalent of a 24 mm lens for a fullformat camera). The photo was transferred to my cell phone and processed first with the Snapseed app with various adjustments before uploaded in Instagram.

Last Week’s Instagram

Once a week—or every so often—I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last week. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. Except for the technical details beneath the pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Panasonic Lumix LX-100 with the lens set at 19.9 mm (the equivalent of a 44 mm lens for a fullformat camera). The photo was transferred to my cell phone and processed first with the Pixlr-o-matic app and then with the Snapseed app with various adjustments.