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 This sounds like an old, outdated photographer ranting about times that are changing.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.

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The Inherent Property of Photography

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

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

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

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

Develop Your Photographic Voice

Do you want to develop your unique photographic voice? My online photo workshop «Finding Your Photographic Voice» will help you on the way. I am starting another round of my acclaimed workshop in May this spring. I promise it will be quite an experience and of course more importantly, an indispensable aid to expand you photographic seeing and how you are able to express your vision through the development of a distinctive voice.

The workshop runs over eight weeks. I know; eight weeks sound like a huge commitment, but remember I always try to be flexible and let participants catch up if they can’t deliver each week. How much work you have to put down for it to be worthwhile, various from one person to another. Some shoot an hour or two each week, while others may spend time photographing each day of the week. Naturally, the more time you spend photographing the more you will benefit from the workshop, but in the end, it’s all up to you.

However the approach is, I think everybody who has participated in the workshop over the years, feel they have grown photographically over the eight weeks’ span. I am so confident that this is a great way to develop you photographic voice, that if you sign up and are not happy I will reimburse the money you spent on it.

During the workshop, you will receive a booklet in which I discuss the week’s theme and give ideas to how to approach a specific photographic challenge in order to develop your photographic voice. And then you will get weekly assignments. The booklets add up to a valuable book. However, the real value of the workshop is the individual feedback you get to every assignment. Every week I will record a video with your submitted pictures and my comments to each of them. This will all add up to around three hours or individual and indispensable feedback.

It’s not the most inexpensive photo workshop in the market, but no other workshop offers this kind of individual feedback, that is really what will help you develop your photographic voice. The regular price is 320 dollars, however, if you sign up and pay before April 30th, you will get it for only 220 dollars.

Do you want to develop your photographic voice? Why don’t you sign up for the next workshop starting as of May 22nd? You will find more information on Blue Hour Photo Workshops.

This is some of the feedback from participants that took «Finding Your Photographic Voice» last year:
Lee Cleland: «I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of the course and the way it was laid out. The critiques were most valuable to me and often pointed out things I would never have picked myself.»

Vigdis Askjem: «I think it’s great that you are thorough in your photo critique. The course has really pushed me and given me new ideas and understanding in relation to photography and subject. I note that I am currently hungry for creative work.»

Pat Callahan: «I thought the best aspect of the workshop was the quality of the feedback every week. It was obviously thoughtfully prepared and professionally delivered. It was well balanced, covering both what I did well and what I could improve.

I have been fortunate to have attended workshops with a few renowned photographers, and the feedback was less carefully prepared and less insightful (and much more expensive). I also liked the pace of the course, the two month remote delivery was very manageable. I would highly recommend your workshop!»

Phil J. Vaughn: «I appreciate your hard work in teaching the workshop. I consider it to have been a valid and valuable learning experience. When I am out on a photo trek, I find myself silently repeating: “Watch your framing. Open up the view. Work the scene.” I enjoyed the opportunity to hone skills a bit more.

Working toward a “finished” project as a goal is helpful and directive. It is likely that most photographers don’t have the kind of goal and are just taking photos as they appear. It’s good to think in a new direction.»

A Tool for Our Heart and Soul


I want to follow up my post Like Roots to a Plant last week, continuing the thoughts about the tension between Eros and Logos. Or between craftsmanship and expressing the heart. Is there a contradiction between the two? Personally I don’t think so, but I do notice many see craft as a barrier between the heart and the art. What they tend to forget is that craft is a living exchange. By craftsmanship we breathe life into our artistic work; by craftsmanship we transmit and transfer our vision into an artistic expression. In addition craftsmanship provides a means for our own growth and development and asks for us to tunnel our mind, heart and soul through the technical possibilities and requirements of whatever artistic medium we are working with.

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

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

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

Some Things Never Change

Det danses tango på Prado

In my post A Delicate Balance last week, I wrote about the dialectic process that photography is. On one hand, you have the technical foundation, that a photograph comes into being by technical means; and on the other hand, that for a photo to capture its audience it needs to hold some emotional content. I also stated that the later is the more important factor. As I wrote, an emotionally loaded but technically poor photo trumps a technically perfect photo lacking emotional content—any time.

What I find interesting is that today it seems like it’s easier than ever to take photos. Present days cameras have become so advanced and at the same time so easy to handle, that everybody can make a technical well capture photograph without knowing much about the technical part of photography at all.

I want to underscore that I just wrote that it seems easier than ever. Because it still isn’t easier to capture the emotional content—and not even technically is it easier, really, with respect to using technique to emphasize a photograph’s content and story. Yes, it is easier to get a perfectly exposed and focused photo, but technique is not only about this. Technique has a far more important role to play—at least if you take your photography serious. You want to understand how you can use for instance shutter speed and aperture visually and how they impact the visual language to substantiate the story you are trying to tell.

The reality is that taking photos that both engage and capture the essence of a moment requires more than just having a advance and intelligent camera—no matter how much of a technical wonder it is. As much as any camera today operates stunningly well under most conditions—and their capabilities keep improving every year, they cannot make the decisions that result in great photos. Only you can. No automatic setting can determine how you want to frame your subject. No automatic camera can decide the best moment to press the shutter button. No camera can choose what you want to photograph. Only you can.

Photography is a skill and a craft. Yes, the technological development has, on some levels, made it easier than ever to take photos. But if you desire more than just perfectly focused and exposed photos—which, by the way, is not guaranteed in and of itself even with today’s cameras—you still need to learn the craft. The camera cannot think for you or distinguish between a terrible photo, an ordinary photo or the masterpiece. You still have to take command of the photographic moment and the camera—whether it is a cell phone, a point-and-shoot camera or an advanced DSLR you use.

Two very important factors that has a huge impact on the visual expression of photography is complete independent on the camera you use and how advanced—or not—it is. The fact is, these two factors are all yours to decide and this has not changed a bit since photography was invented in 1826 when Nicéphore Niépce captured the first ever photograph.

Your choice of space and time when you take a photo will always be independent on the camera and camera technique. If you want to take photos that respond with an audience, you will need to learn how to use both space and time to capture those telling images. In many ways, this is the classical time-space continuum. This space-time continuum is a mathematical and physical model that combines space and time into a single idea. We all exist in this continuum, whether we are aware of it or not, and every photo captured will relate to it.

Don’t let me over-complicate things, though. Understanding that a photo is taken in a certain place and at a certain time is easy enough to grasp. That in itself will have some historical value, but the space-time continuum has far wider implications on how a photograph is perceived.

Space, for instance, as a primary consideration, goes to what you point your camera at, your choice of subject. You need to be in the same space as the subject you want to photograph in order to be able to photograph it. Maybe one day you will be able to capture images formed in your mind without having to direct a camera towards a physical object. However, as I see it, it would no longer be a photograph.

Therefore, you need to pick a space that coincides with the subject you want to photograph. Furthermore, once you have decided on what you want to photograph you also have to decide how you want to frame it. This is clearly space related, too. Which point-of-view you decide on will have a huge impact on how your story in the photo is told. Then finally, you have to decide how you want this stage to be built. What do you leave out and what do you keep in? All these considerations are related to an understanding of space.

Time, on the other hand, is a variable that has other implications on a photograph. First of all, you need to consider when you want to take a photograph. Traditionally, most photographers know that taking a landscape photograph when the sun sits low on the horizon creates a very different result than a photograph of the same landscape taken at midday when the sun is in zenith. Time has also to do with your choice of moment, when to push the shutter release. In a landscape photograph just mentioned, the exact moment will not be as critical as when you a shooting some sport event in which a fraction of a second between two photos can make a big difference in the end result. Finally, time is also a cause for consideration as to what shutter speed you want use to render your idea of the subject. This later time factor is of course a little more technically depended, as you will have to choose a shutter speed that the camera lets you use.

Being consciously aware of space and time will make you a better photographer. The good part of learning to navigate them? You will never have to relearn how to use them if you want at some point to change your camera, because these factors—which have a huge impact on the visual expression—are complete camera independent.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Canon EOS-5D and a 24/105 mm lens set at 24 mm. Shutter speed: 1/200 of a second. Aperture: f/5.6. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Developing Your Photographic Voice

Finding Your Voice_7

Some call it style, some call it vision, and others again call it personal expression. It doesn’t really matter what you call it, the point is; as artists we all seek our own distinctive way of conveying how we see the world around us through whatever artistic media we have chosen, this unique signature that says I am the artist of this creation. For a photographer the medium is of course photography.

What is this distinctive voice then? If for one, it certainly isn’t solely based on technical competence although many photographers put all their energy into technical mastery. It isn’t something that is only related to how we use our media, but it’s a combination of how we see the world, how we interpret it and how we express this view through our chosen, artistic media. It is thus based on a combination of technical fluency, emotional engagement and creative display. How each artist balances these variables varies from one person to another. As artists we stand between these often opposing forces which we much negotiate in the process of our creative work.

Would you like to develop your photographic voice? My eWorkshop «Finding Your Photographic Voice» will aid you on the way. I will guide you and at the same time let you find your own way. Because your photographic voice is genuinely something you can only develop yourself, but I know from previous workshop, that I can facilitate the process.

Right now I am in the middle of teaching another round of the eWorkshop. When I announced the workshop, I didn’t get the usual rush of inquiries. I was a bit puzzled. Maybe it was taking place at a time when possible participants didn’t find space to partake?

As a result of so few signing up, I have decided to run it again earlier than I would normally do and test out if a different time of the year would fit better for people in general. So here is an invitation to join an exciting eight week photo workshop, starting in May. More specifically start-up will be May 9th.

I know; eight weeks sound like a huge commitment, but remember I always try to be flexible and let participants catch up if they can’t deliver each week. How much work you have to put down for it to be worthwhile various from one person to another. Some shoot an hour or two each week, while others may spend time photographing each day of the week. Naturally, the more time you spend photographing the more you will benefit from the workshop, but in the end it’s all up to you. However the approach is, I think everybody who has participated in the workshop over the years, feel they have grown photographically over the eight weeks’ span. I am so confident that this is a great way to develop you photographic voice, that if you sign up and are not happy I will reimburse the money you spent on it.

This is how it works: In the beginning of each week you will receive a little ebooklet in which I discuss the week’s theme and give ideas to how to approach a specific photographic challenge in order to develop your photographic voice. The booklet will also give you concrete assignments as well. Then you have the rest of the week to shoot, experiment and work on the assignments. By the end of the week you send in a selection of your work, which I then will give my feedback on and suggest further ways to develop your photography. In addition I will always be available for questions and help. The themes are among others; photographic seeing, understanding colour, visual language, the passionate voice and why your choice of subject matters, to mention some of them.

Do you want to develop your photographic voice? Why don’t you sign up for the next workshop starting as of May 9th? You will find more information here.

A Good Photograph, What is that?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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