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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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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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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Your Daily Record

As mentioned in my last post, over a couple of weeks around Christmas and New Year I have been trying to connect and replenish my creative well. I have spent time letting the inspiration flow and getting in touch with my muses again, particularly in order to renew this blog.

One way to tap into our creative mind is by something called Morning Pages. I will get back to this in just a second. The reason I mention Morning Pages is a book I have just finished reading. It’s called Zen Camera and written by the American photographer and teacher David Ulrich. In the book, he suggests something he calls Your Daily Record, which has many similarities with Morning Pages except instead of writing it’s a journal of photographs. I think Ulrich’s idea can be beneficial for all photographers at all levels, and that’s why I want to pass it on to whoever is interested in developing their photography.

But first Morning Pages: Let me quickly summarize what they are all about. The award-winning poet, playwright, and filmmaker Julia Cameron developed the concept. Despite her extensive film and theatre credits, which include such diverse work as Miami Vice and the prize-winning romantic comedy God’s Will, which she both wrote and directed, Cameron is best known for her hugely successful works on creativity. Particularly her book The Artist’s Way has gained worldwide recognition. The book teaches techniques and suggests exercises to assist people in gaining self-confidence in harnessing their creative talents and skills. One of the basic tools is what Cameron calls Morning Pages.

Morning Pages are a way to connect with your creative well. It’s basically writing three pages in handwriting as the first thing your do in the morning after you wake up, just whatever occurs to your mind and without trying to control neither the thoughts nor the writing. The idea is that when you wake up you are still very connected to your unconscious mind—which then expresses itself through your writing. It really works (for more about Morning Pages, look up my post Finding the Creative Well).

I recommend anyone who has embarked on a creative endeavour to do Morning Pages, or at least try out the idea. Despite the fact that you have to write, it’s by far for writers only. You don’t even have to be able to write. Well, literally you will have to, of course, but Morning Pages are good training for photographers and everybody else who is creating even if they don’t believe they can write any good. It’s not really about writing, but about getting those unconscious processes to flow and become an integral part of your creativity.

I read The Artist’s Way long ago and ever since have done Morning Pages—admittedly on and off. Nevertheless, already back then in the beginning, I thought the idea could be morphed or moulded into a similar processed using the camera. I did try my morning photographs for a period of time, but never made it work.

But, alas, here comes David Ulrich and Your Daily Record. In the preface of Zen Camera he does himself compare Your Daily Record with the Morning Pages. Imagine how excited I was when I found out. He had developed a method that works.

The baseline for the idea is acknowledging that it’s imperative to photograph regularly and frequently if you want to strengthen seeing and become a better photographer. How much then? Personally I will strongly recommend trying to shoot on a daily basis. I know, it sounds like a lot, but I am confident that you relatively easily may accomplish some shooting during the daily rut of things you need to do. At least the way described by Ulrich. Doing so will encourage development of your skills as a photographer.

Your Daily Record is similar to a free-ranging journal of thoughts and impressions. You let go of conscious thoughts on how you ought to photograph and let the unconscious mind connect directly with the world around you through the camera. When doing Your Daily Record, make it easy for yourself and use your cell phone, which you always carry around anyway. And if you use a “real” camera put it on automatic or program mode. Furthermore, capture images in jpeg-format. I am an ardently believer in shooting with raw-format, but for Your Daily Record, jpeg makes sense since these are images you would normally not process but only capture as sketches and for you to become aware of and develop your photographic mind (truth be told, though, I have set my camera I always carry to capture both formats, just in case…).

Now dedicate time for the daily exercise. It doesn’t have to be time solely for shooting; use off time if you have a change. Shoot while you go for your daily walk, or shoot while commuting with bus or train, or during your lunch break. Whatever works and doesn’t feel stressful. Now just see and record what you see with you cell phone (or camera). Don’t worry or think about making good photos. These are only sketches. Take photos of everything you see and that strikes you enough to make you become aware of it. Photograph anything and everything that ignites any kind of response or resonates with you. Just captured images without thoughts and any worries about composition, light or technique. Use your emotions as a guiding light, photographing what hits you in some way, whether positively or negatively. Shoot a lot and quickly. Shoot from the guts. Over one week, you should try to capture at least 100-200 images according to Ulrich.

Reviewing the images is just an important part of Your Daily Record as the shooting itself. This is how David Ulrich describes this second part of the process: “Organize your photos and view them daily. You can do this at night or odd times throughout the day when you have a free moment. You want to look for recurring themes and core forms or shapes that appear and reappear. Study how you use colour and form, and your magnetic attraction or revulsion to certain subject matter. Above all, seek the pearls of resonance, those images and scenes that call to you from the deep within, that touch your being in ways you cannot yet identify. Place these, and only these are gem-like reflections, in a separate folder.”

Before starting the reviewing, upload the images to a computer. It’s much easier than watching them on a small cell phone screen. Then go through them, initially without any editing or judging. Remember that Your Daily Record is most of all about the process and much less about the final product. And remember—once again—that these images are merely photographic sketches. May I finally make a recommendation at least for those of you who are serious about your photography? Make this exercise a lifelong habit. Keep shooting a journal of free images every day. I promise you it will take your photography to places you wouldn’t even imagine. I have started myself.

10 Great Tips to Take Better Photos

I am very proud to announce that my first eBook about photograph is out today. It’s a book I have been working on over the last year—on and off, of course. Now it’s finally available. For me this is a natural extension of my desire to teach and help anyone interested in taking better picture. The eBook (and the next to come) will be an addition to the workshops I teach all over the world as well as my online workshops.

10 Great Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Point-and-Shoot Camera addresses a handful of challenges that most photographers struggle with. Over 45 pages this eBook will give you a handful of great tips (and some more background to better understand the camera) to improve you photos and make your photos connect with the viewers. The intention is to help you make better pictures without getting too technical or talk too much about visual language or composition.

My intention has also been to make it affordable to most people, which means that for only 5 dollars you get access to download the eBook (as a PDF-document) .

10 Great Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Point-and-Shoot Camera is packed with useful information, tips and great photography. The language is down to earth and not technical at all. It aims for photographers not quite confident with the photographic process yet, but who want to learn more and improve their photography. If you are struggling with getting your photos look good or too often find that your photos don’t quite capture what you had in mind then 10 Great Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Point-and-Shoot Camera is a book for you.

To get this book published is for me very exciting. I have for a long time wanted to publish my own series of photo books. And this is the first one. In other words; in the future more books will come, both for beginners and advanced photographers. More than anything I want to put together a book about the creative process, which is something I have already started working on.

So stay in tune for more. However, for now, maybe 10 Great Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Point-and-Shoot Camera is worth looking up. You can get it by clicking the button below. It will take you to the web site where you can order the book.

The New Visual Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Beyond the Subject

If you believe there is beauty and interesting stuff around you, you will see it, more and more, as you open yourself up. You just need a willingness to explore and find what’s extraordinary in the ordinary things around you. Seeing beyond the subject is a good way to expand you vision. For more on this topic, look up the practical tip I wrote in the post See Beyond the Subject on Blue Hour Photo Workshop’s blog.

A Low Hanging Sun

Learning to understand and use light is one of the key elements to make your photographs stand out. But it’s also a challenging skill to master. Light can come in so many forms and have so many qualities. If you want to handle light, the best way is to practice one kind at a time.

On my workshop blog, I have written about one that almost never fails to produce captivating photos. If you are an experience photographer you probably already know all I am writing in the post, but otherwise, check it out on Blue Hour Photo Workshops.

Natural Light Indoor

Nothing beats natural light. It’s versatile, always changing like a facet, thus always surprising and so beautiful. Even in places, you recon you would need to use artificial light; you may take advantage of natural light. Think indoor. Your first thought may be to turn on the flash, but instead of its harsh and contrasting result, here is a different approach.

If you are interested in this practical tip, you will find more about it on Blue Hour Photo Workshop’s blog.

Capturing the Atmosphere in Night Photos

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One of the changes coming with my «new» blog this year will be a complete new layout. This is still work in progress. However in addition, throughout the year, I will add new features to my blog, and today I introduce one of them.

Every so often, I will publish practical tips about how to get better photos. This blog, though, is mostly about creativity and although it’s based on my approach to photography I hope it have relevance to other creative disciplines as well. Thus, very concrete tips on shooting don’t really belong here. Instead, I will post them on the educational blog for Blue Hour Photo Workshops and only make a reference with a link here on In Flow.

This is the first tip I will present this way:

When you want to capture photos in the night, there is in particular one thing you should be aware of. Obviously everything is going to be darker and thus you would most likely need to use a tripod or at least amp up the ISO-setting significantly. Otherwise, the captured photo will be very blurry—which of course can be used creatively if that’s your intention.

However, what I really have in mind is quite something different. Look up this super advise for better night photos.

On a different note: As announced a couple of times I will draw a winner who will be able to participate in my online photo workshop «Finding Your Photographic Voice» later in May. The deadline is now passed and the drawing will take place later this week. The winner will be announced in my blog post on Monday.