Monday, January 30, 2012

The rule that held me back

This week we’re looking at rules and seeing whether we’ve absorbed some that are holding us back.  Thinking of this has been quite revealing for me.  I don’t have a lot of “shoulds” or “shouldn’ts” about composition or settings.  But when it comes to subject matter there is one big constraint.  All my creative efforts have been constrained (and at times crippled) by the rule that the subject has to be important or relevant. The question the trips me up time after time is this one: What is a worthy subject?

When I was a teenager I went through a phase where I was concerned about the worthiness of my conversation.  I decided I didn’t want to participate in small talk and I would only speak when the subject was relevant and worthwhile.  Needless to day, there wasn’t much to talk about most of the time! 

Later on when I took on the study of painting I ran into the same dilemma.  I couldn’t paint just any old thing.  I had to find a worthwhile subject.  Still life?  Too many people did that!  Landscapes? Boring.   Portraits?  Too conventional.  You see where this is leading, I’m sure.  I was unable to choose an appropriate and worthwhile subject for my artwork.  For a time I did abstract art but even that was tough because I kept finding reality creeping in.  This rule had the effect of stopping me from painting for many years.

I’ve tried to see where this came from and I think part is from my extreme self-consciousness as a child and part from a sense that I needed to be unique. My mother always encouraged me to be a little bit different and somehow I took it way too much to heart.  I felt that the only worthwhile things to do were things that nobody else had ever done. When it comes to subject matter in artwork of any kind, that’s a recipe for paralysis.

Photography is turning out be a way out of this box for me.  I can use the camera to snap a photo of something that catches my eye.  It doesn’t have to be a worthy subject—just something I see and like. 

This photograph is an example.  It’s a plastic wine glass on the bathroom windowsill.  The subject is mundane but something drew my eye and so I went for my camera and took a picture of it.  It's very exciting for me to be finding my way beyond my self-imposed rule about relevant subject matter. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

It's about the light

Earlier this week I collected some of my favorite photographs into an Inspiration File.  This will be something we work on over the next few months in the  Find Your Eye course.  The task was to come up with a collection of 15 to 20 photos that are our favorites, that make us feel something, photos that we like to go back and look at.  I ended up with a lot more than 20.  In fact I had over 80 photographs, but I've now reduced that number to 44.

In reviewing these photos I jotted down some words about what I saw in the photos that I liked.

light                                      texture                           shadows
color contrast                        negative space               pattern
reflections                             tension                           shimmer
diagonals                              depth                             drama
sharp focus                           mood

Maybe these are way too many words; I don't know.  They're something to watch for and think about.

But one thing that does become evident to me is that it's mostly about the light.  It's the photographs that glow that really appeal to me.

Looking at these two photos--they both have warm colored walls reflecting sunlight.  They both have dark shadows and light highlights to create color contrast.  It surprised me actually, how similar they are.  Both have diagonals in the composition too.

And when it comes to flowers, the images that draw my eye are those with lots of light, either shining on or shining through the petals.  These two images also have a similarity in that the camera is straight on and they both have a strong color contrast.

It seems that saturated color really pulls me in.  I love the little triangles of bright green in the centre of the flower on the left.  And I must confess that I've bumped up the saturation in most of these images.  Perhaps this is because I live on the grey Northwest Pacific Coast and I need the hit of vivid colors to balance that.

These are some of my beginning thoughts.  I'm looking forward to working this more.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A familiar subject

Our assignment today at Starting the Journey was to take a bunch of photographs of something we're very familiar with as a subject. For me that has got to be flowers.  I adore taking photographs of flowers, especially with the macro lens and the sun shining through the petals.  But it's January and there aren't that many flowers blooming in Canada in January--even in Victoria.  However just the other day while picking up a coffee at one of my favorite spots I'd noticed some Hellebore blooming in a pot.  So this morning I headed over there with my camera.  
Kat's instructions were to take about 50 photographs of the same subject.  In fact I took three times that many. And I could have taken more. Now it's not unusual for me to take multiple images of something that catches my eye. But usually I stop at around 20. Maybe because I feel kind of stupid moving around the same thing clicking and clicking and clicking.  

It was a very interesting process to just keep on taking pictures this  morning.  I started out at a distance and moved in closer and closer.  After about 50 photos my fingers were freezing so I headed into the coffee shop to warm up with a latte.

It was when I went back out that the magic started.  For one thing the light was lovely.  The air was clear and the sun was gleaming through the petals.  Without a thought for the people passing me as they went in and out of the coffee shop I was circling the pot of flowers, looking from all angles, bending down and pointing the camera up at the sky.   I found angles and closeups that I never found before.

I did lose track of time.  And before I knew it I'd taken another 105 photographs.   And if my fingers weren't so cold I would have stayed and taken more.

So I headed home and put them up on my computer.  Lots of them were boring, or duplicated, or out of focus.  I spent most of the afternoon winnowing through the images; probably about three hours or more reviewing them, cropping them, intensifying the contrast or the saturation.  It takes time to go through 155 images.  Most of the successful ones were from the second half of my photo session.

I tried to narrow it down to two or three but I ended up with these five.  The thing I really learned from this process was that I could take photographs of this one pot of flowers for maybe a week or two.  Or maybe a year even.  There's something that happens when I come right into the vibration of the flower.  It's almost as it I become one with it.  I want to capture its essence, its energy, and I feel a push to keep trying until I get it.  Until I distill it into one perfect image.

I don't think I've caught it yet.  I think I'd like to go back there tomorrow and take a couple of hundred more.   Not sure if I really will though, especially if the temperatures remain below freezing.  But this was a real discovery for me.  I know and love Hellebores now in a way that I never did before.

Thank you Kat!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Why do I take photographs?

The first part of Kat's Find Your Eye course, Starting the Journey, gets us to answer the question:  Why do I take photos?  And of course the consideration of "why" really is the basis of everything.  I've spent this morning letting that question float about in my mind and I'm coming up with some thoughts.

First I asked myself how long I've been interested in photography.  And I realized that the impulse to create an image was pretty strong even when I was in elementary school.  My best friend and I drew all the time.  We had sketch books and loved to draw what we saw around us.  I remember trying to draw my cat, and learning how to draw horses, and discovering how to create a drawing that looked three dimensional.  So drawing was my first response.

I graduated from university as a teacher with a specialty in art but life took me in other directions and I've never made the time to really pursue drawing or painting with any kind of focus.  My first husband had a short-term photo hobby, complete with the SLR camera and the darkroom and lots of photography magazines.  I loved those magazines but I wasn't interested in the technical expertise required to achieve those kinds of images.

For many years the camera was something I pulled out at birthday parties or took on a school field trip.  When we traveled I took the point and shoot camera along and really enjoyed capturing the different things we saw.  That was when I began trying to capture a mood or the essence of a place. I took a lot of photographs when we spent a month in Greece in 1987.  Some of them are pretty nice to look at too.  I was captivated by the poppies growing up through the marble columns. But those photos, nice as they were, were just snapshots and the ended up in a box in the back of the closet.

The advent of digital cameras changed all of that.  I love the way this technology allows me to take as many images as I want and then select the best and manipulate from there.  It really engages my interest to take and image and crop it, and increase the contrast or saturation, or reduce highlights to make it come alive. Three years ago we made a long driving trip through the USA and Mexico and I took thousands of photographs.  I photographed markets, waves, villages, walls, flowers, reflections, kids, and everything I saw in the landscape.  I was blogging about my trip and that was another impetus to take lots of photographs and work with them on my laptop to show some of the things we saw on our travels.

Probably what inspired me most on those trips was close ups of tropical plants, wall textures and colours, and old buildings.  My little Lumix served me well for three years until the LCD screen broke this spring.  Now I'm learning about some of the technical details that I avoided all those years ago with my new Canon G12.

But back to the question of why I take photographs.  The easy answer is to record the beauty that I see in my world.  I am a very visual person.  I love colour, line, texture, contrast.  I see these everywhere as I travel through my day.  I appreciate the expressions on my dogs' faces, the sunlight on the bare tree branches, the contrast of the squash soup with the ivory coloured bowl, the sinuous shape of the kelp floating in the ocean, the shadows on the flower petals.   I want to make photographs that evoke the feeling I get when I see these things.  I want to keep a record of these moments.  And perhaps I want to share these with others who might appreciate them, although I think this is secondary.

Too often what I see through my viewfinder though, is not what caught my eye.  I want to develop the technical expertise to do better at capturing what I see.  Often I find that my eye is selective.  I see the mist over the softly coloured fields as I walk along the path.  But when I look through the viewfinder I'm seeing a bunch of ugly branches in the way.  If I were a serious photographer, I'd leave the path and tramp through the mud to the edge of the fence and take the photo I want to.  But I generally just abandon it and walk on.

I guess this is where the internal reasons that Kat talks about come into play.   If it's just a sideline to my life I won't make the effort to get the image I want.  Of course, in the end it's up to me.  By doing this course I'm making a step towards taking myself and my camera more seriously.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


I like the dark background of this--as well as the off-centre composition.