Content Trumps All

Is composition overrated? Whether that is the case or not; what is it that makes for a captivating photo—composition, something else or a combination of building blocks? The reason I am asking is a newsletter I received the other day written by the Canadian photographer David duChemin in which he asks how much composition really matters.

DuChemin himself was triggered by a photographer who accused him of paying too much attention to composition, arguing that moment is everything. DuChemin’s short answer was, that it’s too easy to put it all down to the moment. To that effect, I agree with duChemin. There is more to a captivating photo that just capturing the “right” moment.

But does it all come down to composition, then? I think many photographers do think so, maybe including light in the equation, too. However, in my world, composition, as well as light and moment, are only means to a goal, not the purpose itself. These are building blocks for as best as possible expressing what a photograph is about.

Yes, you can create a photo that is all about light. Or it’s all about some compelling composition of visually interesting objects. Or even a combination of the two. And the result can be captivating simply by surprising viewers with something they never saw themselves. But will those images stand the test of time?

Composition and light were in fact my stepping-stones to photography. In the beginning, that was what I was looking for. I read everything I could about composition and about light and how to put it all together for compelling images. And I went out looking for strong compositions and/or enchanting light.

None of those images have survived my later critical sense. I did after some time, learn to include and look for the heightened moments in my photography, too. Still, something was lacking. At the time, I was happy with result, but as I look back today, my attempts were rather bleak and boring.

Are there more building blocks you need be able to handle in order to create strong images, and maybe even more important than moment, light or composition? First of all, I don’t believe duChemin means that composition is everything. Nevertheless, in the aforementioned newsletter he writes; “Arguing that some photographers pay too much attention to composition feels a little like arguing that some chefs just pay way too much attention to flavour”. This is of course a tabloid argument, nevertheless in my opinion, puts too much emphasis on composition.

I have come to realize that the most important building block in photography is content—or subject if you will. In fact, it’s more than just a building block, it’s what a photograph is about, or ought to be about. It can be a story, it can be an emotion, it can be a statement, but a photograph has to be about something more than just visual appealing elements. The equivalent goes for writing, for instance. You can write the most beautiful sentences imaginable, but if they don’t tell the reader anything, nobody is ever gonna care.

If you want to improve your photography, my best advice is to look for stronger content. You may ask what, then, is stronger content? Unfortunately, there is not a magical answer to that question. Strong content is everywhere, but you will have to see it. The best way to find an answer is to look to yourself. What triggers you? What makes you happy or even furious? That’s where you—not me and not anybody else—will find strong content and consequently be able to create strong photos. When you have found strong content, you then use your knowledge about the other building blocks, such as composition, light and moment, to express the content in the most captivating way.

Fact is content trumps the other building blocks. If you capture strong enough content, you may still be able to create something extraordinary, even if you screw up the composition, the light sucks and there is no moment at all.

You don’t believe me? Look at photographs at least 50 years or older that have survived in our collective memory. What is the common denominator? Strong content. Yes, most of these classical photos are beautifully composed, lit brilliantly and may have captured either heightened or subtle moments, but you will also find examples of the opposite. The photographs taken by Robert Capa during D-day are a grand case in point. Technically, they got completely screwed up, nevertheless still stand strong to this day.

There is one more point I would like to add. It goes back to how to find strong content. In addition to content, composition, light and moment, there is a fifth building block. That’s you and your personality. In order to create strong images, you need to find a way to express yourself, your emotions and your passions through the other building blocks. You can’t necessarily do much about or change your personality, like you can change the other building blocks, but by learning more about yourself and becoming more self-aware, you can use this fifth building block as much as the others.

In this post, I have referred to David duCheming a couple of times. If you are interested in topics about creating strong photographic imagery, I recommend following duChemin’s blog.

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Downtime

Retreat and withdrawal is a necessary part of the creative process. Very few of us who work creatively are able to stay on top, creatively speaking, producing day in and day out. We need to let our minds rest and seek inspiration or new energy away from our usual creative field. The creative mind is indeed unlimited, but every so often we need to let it have a bit of rest. It doesn’t have to be more than just a walk in the park or enjoying a bit of social life in a café or listening to some beautiful music. Being social is fine, but in most cases it’s more beneficial if you allocate time to spend all by yourself. And even if you have to let go of a project you are in the middle of completing, it’s not wasting time to leave the work behind for a while. Instead it will become a time of incubation where new ideas suddenly will appear or new inspiration will trickle down upon you.

All artists need downtime – that is time to do nothing. There is nothing wrong with that. But we might even have to defend our right to this downtime towards family, friends or even colleagues if you work in a creative field. It might not always be easy; it may take courage, conviction and resiliency. Such time for ourselves – resting – will strike our family and friends as withdrawal. And it is. But for an artist withdrawal is necessary. Without it, the artist in us feels vexed, angry, out of sorts. Without this period of recharging, our artist becomes depleted. Downtime as in retreat and withdrawal is important for incubating new inspiration in us. If we let ourselves have some downtime on a regular basis, we will be able to stay more creative when we do creative work.

When was the last time you took some downtime alone – walking in the park, resting in the sunshine or did a longer hike or spend a day on the beach?

The Soul of the Photographer

If there is one book about the photographic process released the last year and a half that I really want to recommend it’s “The Soul of the Camera” by the Canadian photographer David duChemin. It’s book for those who have come to a point where equipment and technique is of less importance, but rather seek ways to express themselves and feel the need to develop their personal vision. As he writes himself; clearly the camera matters—otherwise we wouldn’t be able to take photos—but in the end the photographer matters more.

It’s the photographer and his or her approach to photography that duChemin addresses in the book. How can you use yourself, your curiosity, your emotions, your creativity to unleash your photographic vision, your distinctive voice? That is what he writes about. It’s about being authentic to yourself and about photographing with a clear intention. As such, the title is actually misleading: It is not about the soul of the camera, but rather the soul of the photographer. I guess what duChemin argues is that the soul of the camera is us, the photographers, the ones holding the camera. It is us, and our vision, that puts the soul into our photographs.

There are plenty of books about how to take pictures by mastering composition, exposure, lighting, post-production, and more. But there aren’t many books about what goes on inside the mind of a photographer, what they think about, and how they approach photography. That is what duChemin addresses in “The Soul of the Camera”. This is a book for photographers who want to take pictures, not play with their gear. If you want to think differently about photography—whether you have the latest gear or not—this book is for you.

The book is beautifully written and in a manner, that perhaps only David duChemin can write. He uses the own experience and development as a springboard to write about the photographic process from the point of the photographer’s mindset. The writing is philosophical and expansive and thus will have a different meaning to different photographers at different points on their journey.

The “Soul of the Camera” feels like a different style of book from some of David duChemin’s previous works, such as “Within the Frame” and “Photographically Speaking”. Yet it really isn’t so different. Each of these books takes a core theme and explores it, trying to convey to the reader its importance and how it might be used to better our photography, and even to learn what better photography means. “The Soul of the Camera” is similar to the other two in that it focuses on a theme, that of “the Photographers Place in Picture-Making.” None of these books are very focused on gear or technique and this book is even less so than the others.

The one objection I have towards his writing is that it’s a little too vague. It’s like someone saying you should be mindful. But if you don’t know how to be mindful, it’s a statement that doesn’t help you anywhere. In trying not to set parameters for other’s development, duChemin becomes too elusive and not concrete enough to help the reader on his or her way towards a more mindful approach to photography.

He writes so himself, about vision, that it’s an elusive topic. So instead of attacking the subject head one, he becomes unusual unclear. Yes, vision is a vague subject matter, but duChemin has written clearly and insightfully about it so many times before. He excuses himself for exactly that in “The Soul of the Camera”; he says he has written so much about vision before, that he has become very self-conscious about writing any further about. Unfortunately, that makes his writing in “The Soul of the Camera” less enlightening.

Do you need another book about photography? DuChemin kind of answers himself: “[Y]ou don’t need another book[…] Yes, read all the books you can get your hands on. But you probably don’t need them as much as you need time to make this craft yours. What you need is time to make photographs.”

I principally will have to agree with duChemin. However, that view doesn’t give the whole picture (no pun intended), as I am sure he will agree upon; otherwise he wouldn’t have written yet another book. Books are good for inspiration, good for new ideas and good for learning more. If that’s what you need, I will highly recommend “The Soul of the Camera”. Despite the few objections I have raised, it’s an inspiring book for any photographer searching for his or her voice.

Then, after having read the book, you still need to go out there and practice. You still need to put in the time to actually make photographs.

In the book, duChemin explores what it means to make better and more personal photographs. Illustrated with a collection of his black and white images, the book’s essays address topics such as craft, mastery, vision, audience, discipline, and authenticity. “The Soul of the Camera” is a personal and deeply sensible book that quietly yet forcefully challenges the idea that our cameras, lenses and settings are anything more than dumb and mute tools.

Once again; DuChemin’s and the book’s point is that it’s the photographer—not the camera—that can make better photographs. As he writes in the book: “The camera on its own is a wonder, but in the hands of the poet, the storyteller, the seeker of change, or the frustrated artist, it can create something alive that touches our humanity.”


The Soul of the Camera: The Photographer’s Place in Picture-Making
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Your Own path

When you first pick up a camera, you start down on a creative path. How far you go—or even how far you want to go—is all up to you. There is no right or wrong. There is no saying how far you should go. And there is certainly no need to feel you have to keep developing your photographic skills or your photographic vision.

If all you want is to play with your camera, if you just want to capture moments in your life, to keep as memories, without any photographic ambitions; do it! Have fun—that is the whole point, anyway. Too many “serious” photographers forget the fun part. They lose the playfulness that is such an important part of the creative endeavour, what probably brought them into photography in the first place.

This path you have undertaken—whichever direction it takes you—is all yours. In many ways, all you need is walk the walk, photograph what photographs you capture, and immerse yourself in the process. Gain confidence as you head down the path; learn to create by creating, become skilled as a photographer by photographing. If you trust the process, if you trust yourself and your inherent creativity—which we all have in us—in time you will master what needs to be mastered. The path will open up for you, if you become susceptible to it.

All this is easier said than done, though, and a guiding hand may more often than not be of great help. It is like undertaking a spiritual journey. You can become spiritually enlightened by work of your own mind, but a master by your side may help you not lose track of the path.

So it is with photography. Someone to guide your development can speed up the progress. I see it in all the workshops I teach, how much each participants grow through the week or whatever length of a workshop. And I know it myself from attending many a workshop. As a matter of fact, now in May I will once more enrol in a workshop, this time in Rome. Very exciting.

Maybe a photo workshop would be worth considering for you, too? Maybe it’s time to develop your photography. I would be happy to se you onboard one of my workshop that I teach this year. See further down for workshops I will be teaching.


I have a task for you. Would you be willing to answer some questions for me? I am doing a little survey to tailor new workshops to your needs. It could be beneficial for you and—and of course for me, too. The survey will only take a few minutes.

To the survey   Get my e-book 10 Great Tips for free.


Workshops in 2019:

Next year I am going to teach no less than four workshops. They will vary from weekend long workshops to a tour stretching almost a fortnight. There should be a workshop for most aspiration.
 
“Street Photography in Cuba” is a workshop I do together with my friend and colleague Sven Creutzmann. It’s our most popular photo workshop and offers a great opportunity to experience the colours, the contradictions, the rhythm and the passion of this country unlike any other. “Street Photography in Cuba” takes place from May 4th to 11th 2019.
 
“The Personal Expression” is a weekend workshop in Bergen, Norway. It’s an intimate and personal photo workshop, in which you will get a chance to work on and develop your personal expression as a photographer. “The Personal Expression” takes place from June 7th to 9th, 2019.
 
“The Visual Language” is an extended weekend workshop in Seattle, USA. In this workshop I will focus on the visual language—as the title indicates—and you will get a chance to develop your skills in visually telling stories with your photography. “The Visual Language” takes place from September 6th to 9th 2019.

“On the Tracks of Che Guevara” is maybe the workshop I am most excited about being able to re-launch. It takes place in the eastern mountain area of Bolivia and we will follow the tracks of the last days of Che Guevara before he was killed in these mountains. This is another workshop I do together with Sven Creutzmann and one we haven’t offer since 2013. “On the Tracks of Che Guevara” takes place from September 23th to October 2nd 2019.
 
<font color="#990000"Please follow the links for more info about each of the workshops.
Or shoot me an email (by answering this one) and I will send you more information.

Different Perspective


I have previously written about the need to have a vision – or intent – when we are photographing (or doing any work of art for that matter). I wrote that a photograph without intent won’t convey significance to the viewers. If we start with an idea or are conscious about the reason why we take a photograph, the final result will reflect this vision of ours and be of much more interest than a random captured photograph. As I wrote; photographic vision is how you see life when the camera is put to the eye (se Vision is Beginning for more).

This concept of a vision driven photographer, isn’t the only way to approach photography, though. Of course you may catch a nice photo now and then if you do choose to shoot unconsciously or randomly, but that’s not what I have in mind. The fact is that many different philosophies about the process of taking (or making) photographs exist – probably as many as there are photographers. Although I believe in the vision driven photography, I am always open to other approaches if they can open up for a different way of shooting. As always it’s about expanding and getting out of the box.

One such approach is called contemplative photography. This practise picks up elements of Zen Buddhism and lets the photographer see subject matter differently than at least I would usually do. The word contemplative in general terms means to think things over, but in this case it means «the process of reflection that draws on a deeper level of intelligence than our usual way of thinking», according to the photographers Andy Karr and Michael Wood who practice and teach contemplative photography. In essence contemplative photography is about how to fully connect with the visual richness of our ordinary, daily experience. In many ways it’s a process of learning how to see.

The practise of contemplative photography has three stages. First you catch as sudden glimpse of something that in some way or another connects with you. It can be a beautiful flower or it can be something as mundane as a sink. Beautiful and mundane are actually words that aren’t supposed to be attributed to things according to the idea of contemplative photography, since all things have their own inherent value. Anyway these flashes of perception, as they are called, happen naturally all the time. You cannot make them happen, but you can learn to recognize them. The next stage is called visual discernment and in means to stay or rest with the experience of the perception. There is a holding-still quality to this phase that allows things to emerge, rather than trying to interpret the nature of the perception. The camera doesn’t come into play at all during these two first stages. Only the last stage does involve the camera and taking the picture. It’s called Forming the Equivalent, which means to use the camera to create the equivalent of the perception just experienced.

In contemplative photography the power of the final image comes from joining clear seeing with genuine expression, free from contrivance.

Contemplative photography is an excellent practice for opening up our ability to see. It enhances our vision and it can create some beautiful, reflective and tranquil pictures. However, if you are a sports photographer or shooting any kind of action it might not be the best approach. I still think any photographer can expand his or her photographic vision by practising contemplative photography. Since it’s impossible to give more than an idea about the practice in a post like this, if you are interested in further information, I recommend the book The Practice of Contemplative Photography by aforementioned Andy Karr and Michael Wood. It’s an inspiring book, filled with practical exercises and photographic assignments. Just to be clear about it, I am not a Buddhist myself but I still find this approach very useful in expanding my vision.

Available on Amazon:
The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes

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Let Go of Comparison

One thing that kills our creativity is this constant urge to compare ourselves with others. We look at those who experience success in our field of work or are doing similar things as we are—with envy. We look at the masters who have developed their skills over a lifetime and feel that in comparison our attempts completely suck. And opposite; we might even be terrified to stand out from the crowd.

It so easy to be sucked into a downward spiral of “feeling not good enough”. Then we lose steam and get discouraged. And even if you aren’t completely dispirited, just the fact that this kind of comparison makes you insecure about your own creative skills, causes you to not be the best you could be. Instead of focusing on your work and feeling good about what you produce, you get sidetracked worrying about what other people might think.

In worst of all cases, someone might think that he or she lack creativity completely. Everyone acknowledge that certain skills, like playing the piano, take years of training. But a common misperception is that you are either good at something or not at all, particularly when it comes to creative expressions. Just think about how many who blatantly state that they cannot draw, they don’t have the talent, and yet have never put in the energy and time it takes to become skilled at it. Remember? As kids we could all draw.

I believe every single one of us have inherent creative capacity. It’s just that too many decide they don’t, without even trying. The main culprit for this: They compare themselves of today with those who are better, not with whom they can become.

Creativity has many elements that work together to push our imagination and desire into new directions. As such, there are many ways in which we can encourage creativity. One way to embrace creativity is to let go of comparison. If you are concerned about conforming or about how you measure up to other’s success, you won’t perform the risk taking and trailblazing inherent in the creative process.

Take skiing, which is something I know well, since I have done it all my life. Most of us accept that when we are learning a new sport like skiing, we will fall down, and other skiers on the slope will see us with our faces planted in the snow. But when it comes to creative work, we tend to freeze up. And not just when we are novices. With people who are skilled in something, perfectionism can be every bit as crippling as a lack of confidence in nonskilled.

Since I am writing about skiing, take myself: Although I am a pretty skilled skier, I still hate skiing under lifts or chairs. Others might see me fall or do something stupid! I know it’s dim, isn’t it, but even if I know, it’s hard to defuse this internal reaction.

Wherever you fall on the artistic skill curve, half the battle is to resist judging yourself. For a photographer, if you can raise the camera without caring about others, your are halfway there. Take baby steps, as I wrote in me post Incremental Progress a couple of weeks ago. Walk up to that stranger on the street and just start taking photographs. Don’t think about what others might think. And show you photos to others without thinking what they may think. Then do it again. I think you’ll be surprised at how easy it can be as long as you take that first step—in whatever it is you don’t dare to do because you are afraid of what other may say. More so, you will be surprised how good it feels afterwards.

Remember what Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: “Do the thing you fear, and the death of fear is certain.”

Throughout our lives, forces can push us toward or away from reaching our creative potential: a teacher’s compliment, a parent’s tolerance for tinkering, or an environment that welcomes new ideas. What matters most in the end, though, is this: your belief in your capacity to creative positive change and the courage to take action. Creativity, far from requiring rare gifts and skills, depends on what you believe what you can do with the talents and skills you already have. And you can develop and build on those skills, talents, and beliefs. After all, Hungarian essayist György Konrád once said, “Courage is only accumulation of small steps.”

Let me send you off with a last quote, this one by Nelson Mandela (and thanks to Through Rose Tinted Glasses that made me aware of it): “I learned that courage was not absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

So go out there and create, not fearlessly, but by conquering all those fears that comparison may raise. And most of all, conquer that urge to compare yourself with others.

Incremental Progress

Hardly anything is as inspirational for us as progress. We get fired up by progress. When you notice that you have personally developed or have accomplished something it boosts your confidence and moves you into an upward spiral of positive expansion.

As human beings, we are motivated by progress. It’s something we can all benefit from when we work creatively.

When you start out on a new creative project, whether it’s photography or any in other art form, it can be overwhelming to try to see the final outcome and figure out the way to get there. The solution is simple—kind of at least. Instead of aiming for the end result, take incremental steps, steps you feel you can easily overcome. Figure out a direction and start moving even if you don’t know how to get to the end. And then celebrate in-between objectives on the way to the final goal.

Take writing a novel. If you think you need to figure out the whole plot and the story line before writing, you will never get started. Yes, you may have an idea or a sketch of the plot, but you will never have all the details figured out beforehand. You just need to start writing the first sentence. And then the next. And so on. If you look to the end of the travel you are about to take on, you will most likely become discouraged before you even get going.

The same with starting a photo project. If you try to figure out all angles and all the images you need for the project beforehand, you end up frustrated and discouraged because you feel you can’t get a grip on what and how it will be. Put down a baseline draft and then start taking the first photo. And then continue, one photo by one photo.

Every so often when you do a bigger project, it’s a good idea to look back and see for yourself that you have actually moved and achieved something since you started. Gather records of what you have done, and make sure you celebrate intermediate objectives. Make a “Done Wall” where you gather up records of whatever achievements you have reach in your creative project.

We all need to see incremental progress in order to feel confident in our creative journeys. Proof of this idea can be found in the analogy of waiting in line. If you find yourself in a long line of people waiting to get into a concert or a restaurant as in the photo above, you will notice that everyone keeps inching forward every few minutes as the line makes its slow advance. But if one person immediately in front of you fails to move with the rest of the line, you will get frustrated. Even if you know that the person ahead of you will move to catch up with the line later on, you still get frustrated as you see the gap of space ahead growing.

Standing still and feeling no progress is difficult. You want to keep moving with the line in order to feel productive. The incremental movements with the line don’t get you there any faster, but they feel great and keep you willing to wait.

Just think about waiting in a line of backed up cars on the freeway. Standing still is very frustrating because you have no idea if the line beyond where you see, is actually moving. Even very slow moving is significantly better than no movement at all. It the same sensation as the one you get pushing the “Door Close”-button in an elevator, even though doing so may, in fact, do nothing (many of these buttons are disabled). Still, it is satisfying to feel that you are making progress.

Feeling progress is an important part of the execution of a creative project. Too often, we tend to stop executing before we even get started. We may have plenty of creative ideas, but the hard part is putting them into life. If your natural tendency is to generate ideas rather than take action on existing ideas, then surrounding yourself with progress can help you focus. When you make incremental progress, celebrate it and feature it. Surround yourself with it.

An example is the latest eBook I have been working on for a while. Before starting out I only knew I wanted to write about how photographers can improve their ability to see so that they are better be able to find interesting and captivating subjects. I didn’t already have all the information or knowledge available. But I started with putting down a loose disposition of possible chapters. Then I started writing. And I kept reading books that could have relevance for my own book. I learned more and I added chapters to the disposition along the way. Then I wrote the chapters as they came to me. And I went back to already written chapters as I found more information that I needed to add. Now the text for the book is as good as done. Next is getting it proofread, and finally I have to figure out the layout, find relevant photos and put it all together. Slowly by slowly the project is moving forward, in incremental steps, in which each finished chapter has kept me going with whatever was left to do.

So if you are about to start on a bigger creative project—or would like to—don’t get discouraged by the long road ahead of you. Just start without thinking what lies ahead of you too much, but take one step at a time. And celebrate each mile you pass.

Vision is Beginning

Intent is what brings depth and significance to a photograph. In many ways you can say it’s the lifeline of the photograph—or any work of fine art for that matter. A photograph without intention behind it won’t convey any importance to the viewers either. It might be as beautiful as anything in the world, but we still won’t stay with it for more than a glimpse of time and we won’t remember it if it doesn’t reveal the photographer behind it. A writer without anything to say in his novel, a filmmaker without a story in her movie or a musician without passionate songs, aren’t going to spellbind their audience and will all soon be forgotten. In the end nobody is going to care about their work. So it is with photography and photographers. A photographer who has no intention with his or her photography will most likely bore the viewers—no matter how technical brilliant the work is or how beautiful the composition is. Intention is what brings uniqueness and substance to a photograph.

«Without intent we’re left with accidental photography, and while accidental photography may once in a while generate interesting photographs, it will not generally count as an act of expression any more than hoping that saying random words will result in a sentence that says something meaningful.» Those are the words of David duChemin taken from his eBook The Vision Driven Photographer.

For David duChemin intent is a way to focus on the why instead of the what in the photographic process. It’s all about being clear about why you shoot what you shoot. By having a clear intent you will better be able to express your vision. For David duChemin the photographic vision is just another word for the intent behind the photograph. Vision is everything—without it the final result is dead. duChemin is one of the contemporary photographers who has been most unambiguous about the need for intent in the photographic process—for the photographer to have a vision. He is probably also the one who has best been able to put words to the somewhat abstract idea of vision and the role it plays in photography. It’s not without reason he calls himself a vision driven photographer.

The photographer’s vision is where the photographic process begins—or where it should begin. Unfortunately most photographers—and I willingly admit that I am prone to the same thoughtlessness, too—don’t have a clear thought about their vision, they just never get beyond the technical part of photography or beyond seeing light or composition. «Before our photographs can say what we want them to, and in so-doing to look like we want them to, we need to understand what we want to say, and how we want to say it. That’s vision.» That’s another quote by duChemin.

In order to better understand the vague and abstract idea of vision, David duChemin splits it in two types. He talks about personal vision and photographic vision. The former is something everybody has although we are not always consciously aware of it. It’s our understanding of the world around us and ourselves. It’s what makes you vote for a certain party, it’s what makes to choose to do what you do, it’s what makes you pay attention to what you see, it’s what makes you photograph something and not something else. The personal vision is based on experience and learning, and it changes with time as it grows more depth with ageing. Photographic vision on the other hand is the link between our personal vision and the final photograph. It’s what makes you frame an image in a certain way, it’s what makes you choose a certain lens over another, it’s what makes you photograph from one angle or another. While personal vision is the how you see life, photographic vision is how you see life when the camera is put to the eye.

Your personal vision is where it all starts. It’s what makes you choose to photograph something over something else. It’s the intent, which could be anything from wanting to show injustice in the world to declaring your love for something or someone. As a photographer you then move out into the world with your intent, and as you know, suddenly you see something that catches your attention. That’s the moment of perception. On the street you suddenly see a couple or an action that arouses your photographic interest. Even in the studio the same thing happens, but instead of moving around in the world until something catches your interest, you move the world around you and rearrange it until it feels right. While in that moment of perception, take a bit of time to reflect over the reason why you were stopped by whatever made you stop. Even if it was only light that seemed to arouse you interest, something made you choose this subject matter of that. This is paying conscious attention to your personal vision. Then continue to discern how you best can express this intention by photographic means available to you. This is the part where your photographic vision comes into play. Only then is it time to pull the trigger and continue the photographic process all the way to the final print, the manifestation of your vision.

This all seems like an elaborate process but as a matter of fact the more you get into the habit of paying attention to your vision, the faster the whole process will progress. From something catches you attention, till the camera has captured the subject, in reality it might only take a fraction of a second. The important part is being aware of your intent—or having a conscious vision. Unfortunately most photographers don’t. They see something without being aware of why the subject caught their attention and then start shooting right away. Of course their personal vision still made them react, but they just don’t know why or are not aware of it.

Do you have a clear intent when you are shooting? Are you a vision driven photographer? Or do you only arbitrarily take snap shots of whatever catches you interest?

Allow for Imperfections

If you were to choose between authenticity and perfect, what would it be? I bet for most of us, it would be the former. Who wants perfect when authentic feels real, inspiring and even more beautiful with its flaws, cracks and defects, than something that is perfect? Think about that for a moment. Relate the thought to your art, whether you photograph, paint, make music or whatever you do.

I know for myself I often seek to make the best I can do, I shoot around a subject to find the best angle, the best composition, the best light. I keep editing the images afterwards in Lightroom og Photoshop until I feel they are flawless. While instead I should allow for flaws and imperfections to bring out the authentic feeling from the outset. The Hollywood version of whatever we create is never going to be real, or even representative of what we stand for. As such, it won’t touch others as strongly as if we had allowed for flaws and imperfections in the creation.

Leonard Cohen once wrote, “Ring the bell that can still ring. There are cracks in everything. That’s how the light gets in”. Flaws are what makes us authentic and real, flaws are what make us shine, and authenticity trumps perfection every time. Those who ring cracked bells are the ones who make the biggest difference in our lives. They are the musicians who write the best songs, the artists who make the most meaningful art, the poets who write the strongest lines, and the people who make the best friends.

When all hell breaks lose, these people’s presence provides hope because they are real. Nobody wants to spend time with a perfect person when the world is falling apart. We want to be with people who understand. Rather than fix our brokenness, they reveal the light even in dark times. Not all cracks are bad; some are just wild edges where birds find refuge.

Think about again. When did you allow for flaws in your creative endeavours? Or at least accept them when they inevitably show up?

The American songwriter duo, Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, has allowed for imperfection to be part of their music. It came about when Linford’s father gave the couple some advice when they moved from the city to a farm: “Leave the edges wild”. It was a curious suggestion for someone who is new to rural life. Linford’s dad was a bird watcher, and he knew that if you make a farm too perfect, you won’t leave any space for the native birds. He said, “Leave the edges wild and let the birds have their hidden places for their untamed music.” Linford and Karin picked up that phrase and integrated the spirit of it into their work. The phrase became a metaphor for how they approached music and life. It wasn’t just about the birds, but about how to provide space for the cultivated and untamed aspects of life to thrive next to each other. If the neat rows of vegetables provided sustenance for the body, the wild edges would provide it for the souls.

Leaving the edges wild is a great mantra for any creative pursuit. Life can become so pasteurized and predictable that there isn’t any space left for mystery or surprise. Wild edges create a zone for the unfinished and untamed to thrive. Einstein once said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” and it’s true. Think of your favourite song, book, movie, or romantic love—you can only explain it so far, and there is always an intangible and incomprehensible element that resonates within.

The most beautiful, most wonderful, and most magnificent push past the barriers of our limited minds. Where reason falls shorts, art steps in. Art is the mystery that awakens and stirs our soul and helps us stop being so caught up in the chaos of our small lives. To do so, though, it must be authentic. And authentic comes with flaws and imperfections.

Flaws can be beautiful if we can learn to embrace them for what they are. The creative process is not perfect, but is inherently flawed. And creativity flows the fastest when we strive to create great things but leave some openness for the fringe. Creativity grows best when it has plenty of space to breathe. So leave the edges wild and let your untamed and hidden spirit grow. Allow for flaws and imperfections.

Zen Camera

A Book Review


In last week’s post I wrote about Your Daily Record, a creative habit that resembles a free-ranging journal of thoughts and impressions in which you let the unconscious mind connect directly with the world around you through the camera. The idea I picked up from the book Zen Camera: Creative Awakening with a Daily Practice in Photography by David Ulrich. The book itself is worth looking into for anyone interested in expanding his or her photography.

Zen Camera isn’t the first photo book which draws upon Eastern philosophy in its approach to photography. Others include books such as The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes, Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing and Opening The Good Eye: A Path to True Seeing, all books I can recommend even if you are not interested in Eastern Philosophy at all. They all, included Zen Camera, give you a unique and useful approach to expanding your photography.

However Zen Camera, differs from the others in that it’s more a cohesive program or a long term workshop than a book of inspiration and new ideas. David Ulrich draws on the principles of Zen practice as well as forty years of teaching photography to offer six reflective lessons for developing your self-expression as a photographer. His ambition with the book is to purify our seeing and allow our original self to emerge.

In my opinion, Ulrich largely accomplishes the objective. At least if you are willing to look beyond his sometimes a little lengthy deliberations about the meaning of it all, if you get my notion. The six lessons take you step by step from initially developing you seeing and observation skills to how to be able to reach mastery and being able to have your photography reflect whom you are as a person in grander perspective. Of course, mastery is not something you can learn by reading a book, but Ulrich’s reflections around the way to mastery are both well founded and encouraging. In fact, reading a book will not be of much help at all. You need to convert the words into skills by practicing. And Ulrich offers plenty of fun, applicable and challenging exercises.

The foundation of the “program” running as a red thread through Zen Camera is the Daily Record. All the lessons and all the exercises in each lesson can be fulfilled through the Daily Record. By working your way through the lessons and exercises you eyes will open up to seeing most likely in a different way than you are used to. It might also transform the way you perceive life, depending on your susceptibility to the Zen philosophy. At least Ulrich aims at making his thoughts valid not only for your photography but for life as such. As he write in the preface; “Zen Camera is not only about photography; it is about you. In six lessons, it guides you to cultivate creativity with the camera and all areas of your life… It helps you realize Socrates’ great directive, Know thyself, and uncover the seeds of the authentic self, hidden behind layers of conditioning and socializing”.

I am not a Zen practitioner myself, and sometimes Ulrich’s deliberations around life and meaning of life seem a little too contrived to me. It’s just too much of it and a bit too woozy and lofty. However, I am sure others will have a different perception of this. The language in the book is also somewhat scholarly and studious as is evident in the quote above—which at times makes it demanding to read. Furthermore, Ulrich’s wordiness can at times be a hurdle in and of itself for fluid reading. Personally, what I find most unpleasing is his tendency towards using a flourishing languages. An example: “Freshness blooms from the beginner’s mind that has its focus in the eternal now”. For me the language distracts. I get caught up in the wording itself rather than what the words try to convey.

Despite my objections, I have no problem recommending the book. You will just have to take it for what it is. But I am quite certain that no matter how you look upon Eastern philosophy and no matter how skilled or not skilled you are, you will arrive on the other side of the book with a different and more developed approach to photography, as long as you dig into it and transform the ideas into a practical approach. Zen Camera will make you a better photographer and if you can see beyond its elusive framework, it will be both inspirational and encouraging.

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