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.

Starting Another eWorkshop

Finding Your Voice_Reklame

In January I will once again offer my eWorkshop «Finding Your Photographic Voice». If you want to develop your photography into a more distinct and expressive way this is a good opportunity to get a guided hand and feedback from a professional photographer. As you may know I teach quite a few workshops around the world. The eWorkshop «Finding Your Photographic Voice» is an inexpensive and convenient way of learning from home.

I promise you this will be an inspirational experience. Together we will explore many sides of the creative process within the realm of photography. It will be fun. It will be challenging. But more than anything it will be a learning experience.

The workshop starts up on January 26th and runs over eight weeks. Each week you will receive a little booklet (as a PDF-file) with inspirations, thoughts, knowledge and ideas for your shooting the next week. Then you will have a week to do the various assignments, of which you will send me an edited selection. Finally you will receive my comments about the photos, included suggestions for improvement – and in which direction I believe you should move your photography.

«Finding Your Photographic Voice» is foremost about creativity and developing your seeing as a photographer and being able to express your vision. It’s not a technical workshop, although we will touch upon technical matters whenever needed. Finding one’s voice is a lifetime project, and eight weeks will not make you come out on the other side with a fully developed photographic voice. But the workshop will guide you on the way to finding it.

If this sounds interesting, you will find more information about the eWorkshop here. Or send me an email: Otto

This is some feedback from previous participants:
You do a fantastic serious work and I feel that I am constantly met with full respect at the level where I am. Would not have wanted to do this trip with another photo teacher. Your way of looking at the photographic process, creativity and creation feels right for me and I have full confidence in you as a person.

I was especially impressed with the depth of the feedback you provided. You always highlighted both what was good and what could be improved. The balance is nice and important.

In my mind, I hear elements of the workshop echoing each time I pick up my camera. This was the most effective learning experience I’ve ever encountered with photography.

Seeing Beyond


                 Do you see the iguana?

The way we human beings have developed our seeing, that is to objectify and label everything around us, is unfortunately restricting us more than it is aiding us when we photograph. Because – as I wrote in my post Photographically Seeing last week – the way our eyes see and the way the camera sees is quite different, we almost need to unlearn our regular way of seeing. Instead of for instance identifying a horse as a “HORSE”, that is a horse as an idea or a label, we need to pause our usual scanning with the eyes and rather discover the uniqueness of that particular horse. Objectifying is perfect for daily survival so that we can respond quickly to new situations occurring around us all the time, but not when you want to photograph beyond the obvious.

We will improve greatly as photographers if we can make ourselves see beyond the labels we have wired our brains to register. What instead of a dead, crooked and fallen trunk we can see an iguana climbing over it? Or see – and photograph – the most beautiful landscape in some clothes piled up on a drawer? What I am talking about is being imaginative and changing our usual perspective. When we were kids we had no problems seeing other realities in the world around us, seeing beyond the labels, we as grown-ups are so stuck with. We all delighted doing it when we were kids, pretending to see or seeing things invisible to others. Socialization, adaptation and communication, however, introduced a different agenda and began to mould perceptual conformity. Our reconstructing skills or imaginations – being able to see beyond the labels – were lost.

Open our minds beyond labels and beyond the obvious can open a whole new world for our photography. Derek Doeffinger, a photograph who has written a dozen books about photography, for instance, suggests that «instead of seeing the horseness of a horse, you might see it as a landscape – the prairie of its back rising into a mountainous neck. Or you may see it as a temple supported with four slender columns.»

Developing our receptiveness is a most effective way to avoid photographic clichés. When asked what he looks for in photographing, Michael Smith replied: «I am not looking for anything. I am just looking – trying to have a full an experience as possible. The point is to have a full experience –the photograph is just a bonus.»

In many ways I am talking about training the capacity to discover new ways of apprehending the world. Are you ready to see beyond seeing? Take a look at the photo beneath. How many different animals or other objects can you see in those rocks? .


Photographically Seeing

Jenny Pastore i sitt hjem

For a photographer seeing is where it all starts. If you don’t see anything that interests you, you won’t be able to take any interesting photos. Obviously. However, there is a big difference between seeing in general and seeing with the intention of taking a photograph. In many ways we have to unlearn the regular way of seeing. If you «only» see like you do when you walk down the street without a camera or when you are socializing with your friends or whatever you do when you are not photographing, you will miss out on the interesting and captivating photos.

For many people – photographers and viewers alike – a photograph is simply a record of what was in front of the camera. There is really no thought given to interpretation, or the fact that the camera sees quite differently than human beings do. You want to capture a nice moments with you friends? You raise the camera or the cell phone, and capture a photo without much more thought to it. But for those of us who pursue photography as a creative, artistic and/or personal expressive endeavour, we learn to see like the camera, we learn to recognize what has a potential to become a captivating photo and we learn that the scene in front of the camera is only a starting point for the photographic journey.

It’s easy to look at things. We do it constantly without giving it much thought. It gets us through the day. But how often do you stop to really see what you are looking at? By this I mean seeing something in depth, looking at it long enough and intently enough that you are not only seeing that it’s there, but you actually study it and learn something about it.

Most of the time, that is not how we see. Our mind is simply not set up to spend a lot of time contemplating about things we see. To be able to survive – and this has been developed over the course of human existence – our eyes constantly scan the scenery and interpret on the fly whatever is. We want to detect anything dangerously as quickly as possible, we want to be able to get things done without having to process the smallest of visual clues. In this process of learning to see, already as babies we start to categorize things. When you see a book for the first time, you spend time figuring out what it is. You study it intently and in depth. But then when you see the book for the fifth, the tenth or the fiftieth time, you slowly start to recognize what it is without having to put you full attention to it. After a while your mind makes a mental picture, characterizes it and labels it «BOOK». You no longer see a book when you encounter one although your unconscious mind has recorded it. Consciously you may vaguely register the book, or you may not at all. Our mind objectifies everything to make it easier for us to understand and evaluate what we see. If you do see a book, you don’t see it as a unique book, but as the object «BOOK».

This is one reason why learning to see with the intention to photograph requires experience. By nature we are only geared to see objects, as I just wrote, this is what we by nature have been trained to do since we were born. A baby learns to see mommy, daddy and other things of importance as he or she grows. Cameras on the other hand capture light. Of course the human eye registers light too, but when the baby grows up it doesn’t really see mommy or anything else as a set of light levels. However, that’s exactly how the camera «sees». Because a camera records only light, the photographer has to learn to see light, and understand how light brings out or destroys the lines, forms, tonality, colours, dimensionality and all other aspects of a scene.

Seeing as a photographer is further complicated because we as human beings register the world differently than a camera. As you peruse a scene with your eyes, your irises open up a bit to let in more light from the darkest parts of the scene and close down a bit to moderate the intensity of the brightest parts of the scene. This happens continuously and automatically as your eyes shift around in scene. As a result you are able to distinguish details both in shadows and highlights and you don’t even notice the eyes’ adaptation to the different light levels. The camera on the other hand, captures one single moment with only one size of the aperture – the camera’s iris. Thus, what with your eyes you can see quite well in harsh sunlight, the camera will only be able to capture partly, either the brighter parts or the darker parts with the other part being respectively clogged down or burned out.

Furthermore, when the eyes shift around to take in a scene, they not only adapt to various light levels, but also refocus the lenses so whatever you look at is sharp. Again, because this happens continuously and automatically – and the brain maps it all – you seem to see a scene that is focused from close up to infinity. The camera, though, can only focus on one point at the moment of capture. In some cases it makes the scene look completely different from how you recalled it – if you are not aware of how the camera captures the scene.

Complicating this issue even more is the fact that a camera has a single lens, while your eyes see every scene with binocular vision. Your left and your right eye combine to see a scene in a three-dimensional way. They recognize depth, which the camera cannot. Just try to look at a complex scene with one eye closed and you’ll see that the scene tends to lose a large degree of depth. If you want to convey a sense of depth in a photograph, you will have to learn what will help bring out that feeling of depth.

Seeing as a camera and with the intention to take photographs comes with learning and experience. When I teach workshops a lot of attention goes to seeing and translate what you see with you eyes into something the camera can transform into a captivating photo. As with any other skill, in the end, the more you do it the better you become. Practise makes perfect. And when you learn to see as the camera you will also start to register interesting subjects to be photographed more often and more clearly. Remember my post Seeing before Seeing, in which I asked what triggers you to push the button? The fact is that the better you become in seeing as the camera «sees», the more clear you will become about what has a potential as a photograph, the more often something will trigger you to photograph, which again will lead you to take better and more captivating photos.

Don’t Chase Style

Gatelivet i San Querico går i et langsomt tempo

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

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

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

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

Finding Your Photographic Voice

Finding Your Voice_Alternative

In January I will start up a new instalment of my popular photo eWorkshop. Are you ready to join? I promise you this will be an inspirational experience. Together we will explore many sides of the creative process within the realm of photography. It will be fun. It will be challenging. But more than anything it will be a learning experience.

Do you feel like you need some feedback on your photography? Would you like to learn more about the creative side of photography? Are you interested in developing your photographic voice? This is exactly what I can help you with during this online workshop. It’s for a reason I have called it «Finding Your Photographic Voice». Through weekly lessons and my thorough evaluation of your work, I will guide you on your way to develop this distinctive expression that all photographers are looking for.

The workshop starts up on January 26th and runs over eight weeks. Each week you will receive a little booklet (as a PDF-file) with inspirations, thoughts, knowledge and ideas for your shooting the next week. Then you will have a week to do the various assignments, of which you will send me an edited selection. Finally you will receive my comments about the photos, included suggestions for improvement – and in which direction I believe you should move your photography.

«Finding Your Photographic Voice» is foremost about creativity and developing your seeing as a photographer and being able to express your vision. It’s not a technical workshop, although we will touch upon technical matters whenever needed. Finding one’s voice is a lifetime project, and eight weeks will not make you come out on the other side with a fully developed photographic voice. But the workshop will guide you on the way to finding it.

If this sounds interesting, you will find more information about the eWorkshop here. Or send me an email: Otto

This is some feedback from previous participants:
You do a fantastic serious work and I feel that I am constantly met with full respect at the level where I am. Would not have wanted to do this trip with another photo teacher. Your way of looking at the photographic process, creativity and creation feels right for me and I have full confidence in you as a person.

I was especially impressed with the depth of the feedback you provided. You always highlighted both what was good and what could be improved. The balance is nice and important.

In my mind, I hear elements of the workshop echoing each time I pick up my camera. This was the most effective learning experience I’ve ever encountered with photography.

New eWorkshop

Finding Your Voice_Poster

I am happy to announce another eWorkshop that can help you develop your photographic vision. Would you like to improve you photographic skills – become better at capturing pictures which show and tell what you saw for your inner eye when pushing the shutter button? Would your like to develop you personal photographic voice, the distinctive way of conveying how you see the world around you? This workshop may be a way to help you on the way

As you may know I do various photo workshops around the world, the latest took place in Spain this May. At the same time I realize that attending such a workshop can be quite an expensive treat. That is why I have developed this eWorkshop which will not cut as deeply into the wallet.

«Finding Your Photographic Voice» is a workshop which you can do at home. You only need a camera (any will do), and be willing to put in some effort into developing your photographic seeing. The interaction between me and you will by over the internet. Quite uncomplicated in other words. In a more practical sense it will take place over eight weeks. For each week you will receive a little booklet (as a PDF-file) beforehand with inspirations, thoughts, knowledge and ideas for your shooting the next week. Then you will have a week to do the various assignments, of which you will send me an edited selection. Finally you will receive my comments about the photos, included suggestions for improvement – and in which direction I believe you should move you photography. Each week’s booklet consists of 8 to 15 pages of inspiration and ideas, which means that by the end of this eWorkshop you will have a whole book of more than 80 pages about photographic seeing and capturing.

This is not a workshop about technique, but about the visual language, how to develop your vision, what you should look for in order to create catching pictures. As I write in the preface of the first booklet: This distinctive voice that is the focus of the workshop isn’t something «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.»

«Finding Your Photographic Voice» is for all levels. You definitely don’t have to be a photographer as such – only wanting to develop your photography. Since it’s not about technique any level of technical knowledge is good enough. My focus with the workshop is really to develop your photographic voice. Of course what you are able to express and how you do it, will depend on your technical level, but not knowing much will not prevent you from developing your voice and becoming a better photographer.

The topics for the eight weeks are:
• Seeing as a photographer. The basics of the visual language
• Understanding colours and the interaction of colours
• Graphic elements of the camera and how it interprets the vision
• The passionate voice, the link to making engaging pictures
• The five elements that make up a good photograph
• Doing the work. Thoughts for developing the photographic vision
• Subject and subject matter. How to bring focus to the story of the picture
• Vision driven photography. The road further on

The eWorkshop will be limited to 10 people on a first come first serve basis. It will start on the week of August 11th. I will create a group where all participants can post their photos and where my response and picture critique will be visible for all participants.

The price for eight the eight weeks eWorkshop is US dollars 240,-.

Does it sound interesting? Sign up by sending me an email or use the same email to ask more about the workshop.

I look forward to seeing you in «Finding Your Photographic Voice».

At the End of the Rainbow


Photography is under rapid development, as is the concept of what photography is. What it once used to be is no longer true; neither is how we once perceived photography. There is really no such thing as one truth. What we conceive as true is not absolute, is changing with changing times and changing from one person to another. Just think about the notion «a camera never lies.» Who believes in this anymore? Or the idea of objective reporting; that has long gone, too – at least for most of us.

Ever new developments in photography challenge the whole concept of photography. It opens up for new creative choices – is creativity in and of itself. With it comes a new way of seeing photography; old myths are buried and new understanding brought into life. That is what creativity means. Creativity is an act of defiance. You are challenging status quo. You are questioning accepted truth and principles. As a creator yourself, you are asking three universal questions that mock the conventional wisdom: «Why do I have to obey rules?» «Why can’t I be different?» «Why can’t I do it my way?» These are the impulses that guide all creative people whether they admit it or not. Every act of creation is also an act of destruction and abandonment. Something has to be cast aside to make way for the new.

So when I in my two posts The Heart of Photography and What Does It Matter! have discussed what photography is and what this understanding implicates as for how we can use photography to express our creativity I acknowledge the fact that we all see it differently; that what one person easily can accept, is out of the question for another person. But in the process of discussing how we see photography and what we tolerate within the realm of photography, hopefully we become wiser and are able to broaden our understanding. My aim is certainly not to tell anyone to stop processing a photo till it has become something totally different than what was captured, but I ask to question when and how far is OK in a given context. This much said; in a broad and fundamental discussion as this one it’s easy to get sidetracked, and to some extent we ended up debating a little too much what is acceptable or not in documentary photography. It’s an important question, but as I have written a couple of times already; all different genres require different approach to how photography is used – not only when it comes to documentary photography.

With any given genre comes a contract. It’s not a written contract – certainly not written in stone, but a contract nevertheless; a contract between the creator and the recipient. This not only goes for photography but applies to any creative and/or expressive form. When a writer, for example, establishes the genre he or she works in, you, the reader, agree to its terms. It’s a contract between the two of you. A humorist promises to make you laugh. A thriller writer promises to create evil and then conquer it. A mystery writer promises to build a murderous maze and then show you the way out. A romance novelist promises to make you cry. You feel gypped when the author breaks the contract.

It’s the same with photography. With photography, though, the genres are vaguer and not as clearly defined as in literature. But I think most can see that a textbook photograph will be different than an avant-garde photography, that an advertisement photograph will be different than a family photograph. The contract between the photographer and the viewer will be different for the different types of photography. As for these genres I will not try to define them or even list them. It would turn into a boring monologue, and in end become a discussion about what is and what is not and how to define. My point is only to point to the fact that photography as a form of expression does not have a uniform representation.

I will round up this discussion, tough, trying to classify a couple of distinct groups of photographic expression – not genres, but major divisions of photography based on differences in their inherent visual language and how the photographic processes itself govern the end result. These are the categories of photography I would like to propose: Classical Photography, Authentic Digital Photography, Open Digital Photography and Computer Generated Photography.

In many ways the classification is obvious. But allow me to indulge just a bit – and discus a little bit the different qualities. Classical Photography I see as any photograph that has been captured with and output on light-chemical sensitive material; that is traditional film and prints that have to be chemically developed. A classical photograph may have been captured with or without a camera. The expressive qualities of Classical Photography lie in its rich and subtle tones that digital photography is still not able to quite reproduce. On the other hand sharpness is inferior compared to digital photography. But maybe more important than the inherent technical qualities in Classical Photography is how the photographic process in itself affects the expression. Because the photographer cannot instantly (with the exception of Polaroids) see the result, there is a much stronger awareness as to getting it right and to be able to control the result beforehand. It forces a more deliberate expression compared to when you know you can always fix it later – even more so with slide film than with negative film. In addition film and developing is expensive, thus the photographer can’t shoot unlimited amounts of frames. This also enforces awareness and alertness that creates an immediacy and intensity that is quite unique for analogue photography.

Authentic Digital Photography is obviously captured with some kind of electronic image sensor, the way most people photograph these days. The authentic addition goes to show that this is unmanipulated – but not unprocessed – photography. That is to say that no pixels have been removed, added or exchanged from the time of capture. The objects you see in an authentic digital photograph were there when it was taken. Otherwise they may have been altered in appearance due to processing – to a lesser or greater extent, depending on the genre. The qualities that relate to digital photography go to incredible sensitivity. It is possible to photograph in almost any kind of light, even in almost complete darkness, and get the colours right. But the digital sensor handles contrast less gracious than analogue film. Otherwise digital photography is much more forgiving because you can always alter most anything after the fact in the post processing. It may make the photographer less sharp in the moment of capture, but also indulge her or him to take more risks. The fact that in reality there are no limitations on how many frames can be taken frees up the photographer – but at the same time makes him or her less alert. All this influence the final expression of digital photograph compared to an analogue photograph taken by the same photographer at the same time.

Open Digital Photography only differs from Authentic Digital Photography in that it’s free for complete manipulations. The photographer may composite, add new layers of pixel or remove, add or exchange pixel to his or her like or dislike. Most of the qualities discussed for the previous category are valid for Open Digital Photography. There is one distinction, though. Whereas the former capture and show life as it unfold the latter may combine and create new «realities» from scratch. One isn’t better or worse than the other, but the result is quite different. In the first case the photographer is limited to whatever happens in reality which brings about a feeling of authenticity while that is not a limitation for the second case. In Open Digital Photography you may be able to play more with direct emotional expressions.

Computer Generated Photography doesn’t need much explanation I think. It’s all images created on a computer. The quality of this type of photography is related to unlimited possibilities to create new and different worlds – as long as the photographer has the money and the knowledge to do so. Not even the sky is then the limit. What it suffers under is more than anything the lack of unpredictability that rules real life. And it’s hard to get that rough, rugged and cluttered look that characterizes reality. Real life is just so richer than anything created on a computer can match. Computer Generated Photography looks too clean – and thus not real. That’s why it’s used in car advertisement – to make cars look better than real – and not in portraits.

I hope you have enjoyed this discussion – and I would love to have more comments on the categorizing I have outlined here. I understand that there is a gradual transition between them, for instance is it possible to photograph on film and scan the result for a digital output or one could add a computer generated photograph to a photograph of something from the real world. But nevertheless I think no matter how you divide anything you will find this kind of gradual transition.

Now I look forward to reading your response.

What Does It Matter!

Why bother about trying to define what photography is? And does it matter whether a photo is digitally altered or not – in the end who gives a damn? In my post The Heart of Photography last week I initiated a discourse about what is and what is not photography. I didn’t try to come to any conclusions but my intent was to raise some open and relevant question. The comments and the debate after I had written the post were both engaging and diverse.

Many of those who commented were not troubled by the possibility that the digital era of photography has opened up for huge alterations and manipulations of the photographic expression, they saw it either as an extension of the artist’s vision and the artist’s interpretation of the moment of capture, or simply didn’t care – they want to take their photos and don’t feel the need to get involved in a theoretical discussion about photography. The latter take their photos for memory reasons and don’t see much more into photography.

For me it only shows that we all have different ways of both using and seeing photography. As one of the comments stated: «Photography has many purposes.» I think any discussion about photography will have to take that into account. But just to raise the bar: Even the happy snapper would not put up with a photo of President Obama hammering his shoe in the pulpit of the general assembly of the United Nations on the front page of New York Times – if it in fact wasn’t true (this happened for a former Soviet Union head of state, as a matter of fact).

One comment stating that my post seemed to want to bring a philosophical discussion to something that does not need one, made me think why it is indeed so important for me to define what photography is. It’s not necessarily an easy question to answer, but at the bottom of it all lays a need and a desire to understand my chosen form of expression. For me to be a good photographer I need to understand the more subtle and underlying truism that defines photography. I need to understand in order to use it as effective and creative as possible. Understanding what photography is also relates directly to my integrity and credibility as a photographer. I am a professional photographer and I depend on people understanding what I am trying to convey in my photos – and believing in my point of view. My field is mainly documentary photography (although I diversify in many directions – and more and more so in later years) and it would be a catastrophe if any of my photos were labelled forgery. Others in this field have done so and been disclosed. They went out of business.

A small digression but nevertheless an apropos: The American photojournalist W. Eugene Smith was a huge role model in my younger days – and I still think of him as one of the greatest photographers we have ever seen. In 1989 Jim Hughes – the former editor of Camera35 and Camera Arts – came out with a biography about Eugene Smith; W. Eugene Smith: Shadow and Substance – The Life and Work of an American Photographer. In the book Hughes revealed that Smith had often manipulated his images in the darkroom. It wasn’t known until then, because Eugene Smith was very particular about never letting anyone see his negatives. For instance in the famous portrait of Albert Scweitzer taken in Lambaréné in Garbon, the tools – perceived as his tools – we see in front of him was added from a different negative. And another example: the picture of a wake which was part of Smith’s big Life story; The Spanish Village. In this photo Smith made people look at the old man on lit de parade – moving their eyes as he wanted them to be – by burning, dodging and bleaching their eyes. When the book came out it created an uproar among photographers and other people in the media business. Back then I didn’t get the indignation, for me Eugene Smith had just processed the photos in accordance with the way he had seen the events. Today, though, I have quite a different perspective on this matter.

To elaborate more about how understanding what photography is is important for me in order to perform fully as a photographer; this comes down to understanding the visual language of photography as well as being able to see the context a photograph is functioning in. For me there is a big difference in the way I photograph between doing a story about refugees in a displacement camp in Goma, Congo or if I am shooting on the streets of Vallegrande in Bolivia (which by the way the photo accompanying this post is taken from). Likewise there is a big difference whether I photograph for a magazine or if I photograph a personal project. It’s part of the inherent style of any given genre.

I have no problems accepting that most people who shoot for memories don’t care about genres, but I not only live of my photography but breathe for it. In many ways it may be compared to writing. Most people write letters or diaries or notes or blogs without being consciously aware of different genres of writing. But a professional writer, whether he or she writes books or for a newspaper, needs to know – and adapt – to different genres. There is obviously a different code for writing non-fiction than fiction, but it’s also a different matter whether you write a crime detective novel or a romantic novel. The style is different and the way of building a plot is different. The same in journalistic writing. There is a big difference whether you write a news article, an editorial, a comment or a feature article.

Photography is no different. For me, obviously, the biggest difference is whether you do art or documentary photography; in the former there are basically no rules to how you accomplish the end result, while for later it’s not indifferent how the image you present was acquired. But even art photography and documentary photography are nothing but broad categories; within each of them you will find an abundance of genres each demanding different photographic approaches. I am not saying that one should stick to rules that govern any genre as little as I mean that a photograph should stick to compositional rules. And I certainly don’t mean to say that alterations or manipulations of photographs are bad or unethical. On the contrary. But you need to know the rules before you break them, and you need to know why you break them if you do. Otherwise the result will be very confusing and lose its power.

Digital enhancement or alteration is fine – it’s more than that, it’s a fantastic tool we should use as much as possible – artistically. But it’s not indifferent how and when we do it – even in arts or in circumstances when it might not seem to matter much. I am sure most people don’t rustle up much conscious reflections around family snapshots, but I am sure no one would be very happy if the photographer had digitally eliminated one of the persons in a group photo of a family. It comes down to context.

For me Helen C’s comment in my post The Heart of Photography gives the best argument for why we need to be concerned about what photography is and in what context we use it. She said: « I was amazed at several “great” photographs I saw online. I showed some to my husband and said, “I want to learn how to take pictures like these.” I was crazy about them. Later when I learned how much “editing” was involved in producing those pictures, I felt being cheated, like reading a memoir book and liking it and later finding out 70% was fiction.»

Photography has to be seen in context. And photography is not one thing; it’s an array of different forms and expressions. This, though; I will return to next week. In the meantime; what different genres do you perceive photography can be divided into – and what are their different characteristics?

Wide Angle for People





Nothing is quite like photographing people – for me at least. It’s such a pivotal experience on many levels. Of course it’s about finding a way to capture the essence of a person – or his or her soul, as has often been stated. But it’s also about connecting, and about the personal exchanges happening between the photographer and the individual(s) being photographed. There is the human aspect of photographing people as well as the creative aspect of the process. When the two really bond the experience can even be elevated to a spiritual level. That’s when the interaction levitates beyond the human and physical realm, when the exchange transcends into an illimitable relationship. Finally there is also something very personal and self-reflective about photographing other people. You learn about yourself in the mirror image of the other person, you widen your social skills, you discover new facets of human existence, you expand your universe and not the least you break through some of your inhibitions every time you confront another fellow human being with your camera. Anyone who has photographed on the street knows how intimidating it can be to approach a total stranger. It’s very challenging and daunting. Among other emotional strains you have to face your own fear of being turned down. But when you do break that initial inhibition the result is always an exhilarated blissfulness.

There is more to it, though. The human exchange is not only a personal incentive; it becomes a very visual part of the final image. It’s almost as if it gets ingrained in the expression of the photograph. The exchange between the photographer and the photographed will indisputably make an immense visual footprint on the emotional content of the image. That is of course if there is a human exchange in the first place. For that very reason a valuable part of photographs of people will be missed out if they are captured with a longer lens – simply because the exchange will be missing. Then it becomes more about light, forms, moment and the photographers sole vision at the moment of capture. Which of course there is nothing wrong with; it just becomes a totally different kind of image. But if we want to capture that feeling of exchange between the photographer and the person being photographed, we as photographers need to get close. That’s where the wide angle lens helps, because it forces us to get close.

This is one reason to use a wide angle lens to photograph people. Another is the wider angle itself. It places the person in its surroundings; you get a connection between the person and his or her environment, which adds depth – literally and figuratively – to the visual content. With a telephoto lens the background get squeezed out of the frame because of its narrower viewing angle. In addition; often whatever is visible of the background will be blurred because of smaller depth of field caused by photographing with a telephoto lens. This can of course be a benefit when you want to isolate the person you are photographing, but will on the other hand not reveal anything of her or his environment. It simplifies the visual language, which again can be a quality you want to utilize. But when the environment is important the wide angle lens is the right choice. A third benefit of using a wide angle lens is its manner of isolating the subject. When you move in close with a wide angle lens the person you are photographing will become the bigger visual element within the frame, while the background and whatever is in the background will become much smaller and thus relatively more insignificant. This turns the focus of the viewer to the person in front and thus isolating him or her in a more symbolic way.

When using a wide angle lens to photograph people there are a couple of things to look out for, particularly the closer you get and the wider angle you use. The wide angle lens will distort the subject in various ways. For the same reason it isolates a person against the background it will emphasize elements sticking out towards the lens. So if you photograph a person head on and very close, the nose will be much closer to the front lens than the rest of the person. The person being photographed will most likely not be very happy with the result, because the nose becomes a gigantic monolith while the rest of the face gets distorted the other way around to a narrow, stretched out head towards the background. To avoid this you will either have to back up a little of find another angle to photograph the face from. Make the person turn the face a little bit to either sides will remedy the distorted nose. Some other facial parts will still be victims of distortion of course, but that might not be visually disturbing of even very noticeable for an untrained eye. This is by the way why a telephoto lens of 80-135 millimetre (for a 35 millimetre frame) is regarded as a perfect portrait lens, since it renders the proportion of the face in the most natural way. But then of course you defy the purpose of wanting to use a wide angle lens.

Another feature to be aware of when photographing with a wide angle lens is the distortion that happens towards the edges of a frame. This is due to the projection of a three-dimensional object onto a flat image sensor and as such not a flaw of the lens itself. But it will distort a face quite obvious when it’s place towards the edge of the frame. Again the wider the lens the more distorted the subject will become. You can place a lot of different objects close to the edge without the viewer noticing the distortion, but we have a small tolerance for any abnormal alteration of human faces. It’s still possible to place human beings out towards the edges of the frame, but you have to play with angles and distances and simply move around the person and take a lot of photos to make sure the distortion doesn’t become a liability. This said, though, I have photographed people close up with a 16 millimetre lens, shot portraits of them and placed them towards the edge and been able to do so without much noticeable distortion. You just have to play and experiment.

Have you ever photographed people with a wide angle lens? I challenge you to give it a try. It will be fun – and challenging. And, yes, you will feel intimidated, but still, give it a try. If you haven’t photographed people with a wide angle lens before, I assure you that you will return with quite some different pictures than you usually do.