19 April 2017

The Eye of the Master

I need to get better

In most activities you can improve yourself. Just as you can in photography. The question then remains: how? Now, before thinking much about that question, perhaps there should be a question before. Just as the heading above might be different. The heading should read: "I need to get better, or not?"
Like most people, I like to get better at what I do. Or at least good enough to serve its purpose. So, before I can tell whether I need to get better, I would need to know what my purpose is. If you take a random look at my photos, you will most likely notice they are in general not very special. Even if I think I improved, I cannot find much in my photos that makes people go "Wow!".
Vulture, photo taken in the zoo
Most of my photos are like the one here. Taken while on a day out. Or on holiday. In this case a simple photo from a vulture. I am not going to say it is a bad photo. But it also has no spark, it's a decent photo.
I have a lot of these photos, because that is how I like to shoot photos. I can tell you that I like going to the zoo. But photography gives me a good reason to be there. I am now not only relaxing, but am also taking photos. The first part, relaxing, I could do at home on the couch. But the second part will become dull quite fast, as my house is not that big that I would not have photographed everything in a day.
Just as I like taking the time to make photos during holidays or other trips. The camera gives me a reason to take time, to do things leisurely and a reason for being there. Those are my main reasons for making photos. Nowhere in that part is mentioned anything about high quality photos. Nor about becoming an ace.
So, that brings me to the question: do I need to get better, or am I good enough to serve its purpose. The last part seems to be easily answered: as I had no quality demands, except taking photos, I am probably good enough to serve its purpose.


I added the heading above, so it would stand out. Why, you ask? Because it's important, I answer. And then you ask me why it is important. My answer could be short: everyone, including me, is vain.
Vanity smurf
Vanity smurf 
There are degrees, but we all like to be complimented and we all like to be noticed in a positive way. Of course, you can be shy and blush furiously when people praise you in public. But even then you cannot deny it feels good to be praised. A photographer, even a hobby photographer like me, likes to be praised for their photos. I have put a bunch of mine online. Partly, so I have access to them wherever I am. Partly, because that also serves as a nice back-up in case something happens to my hard disk. And partly so others can admire them. I admit that last one is just a small part, as I don't give much reason for people to come and admire my photos. But I still like it when someone would see one of my photos and tell me it's a good photo.
With this in mind, the question whether my photos serve their purpose is much harder to answer. As they rarely get comments that they are great, I don't really get praise. But I am not primarily after praise, it's just a secondary issue. So, I finally settled for: they are good enough to serve their purpose, but it would be nice if they would do so better.
Getting better is then obvious something I would want for two reasons:
  1. Because humans like getting better,
  2. So my photos serve the purpose of attracting praise better.

How to improve?

Only now I have established I do want to improve myself, I can start thinking about how to do that. I could take a formal education to become a photographer. And at that point it becomes clear for me that I don't have enough motivation to improve myself that way. That would take a lot of time and money. Neither of my two reasons above are important enough for me to go that way and invest that. For anyone wanting to become a professional photographer, I would strongly encourage getting an education. But for someone wanting to take photos in the zoo... well, not really.
The other thing that immediately comes to mind would be practice. They saying goes: "Practice makes perfect." Unfortunately that saying does not mention how much practice it would take to get even near perfect. But I can do a guess: a lot!
But... who mentioned perfect or near perfect? Well, I did. But I agree with you, I do not need to become near perfect. Just a little better would already be fine. In which case I would need much less practice. So what is stopping me? Obviously: I am stopping myself. I do not like practicing just to get better. I do not want to invest that time, just as before with the education. That is not to say I do not get any practice whatsoever. Every time I take a photo I get some practice. But it is not enough to make big steps forward. This is more like crouching forward and being taken over by a snail.
If you feel like practicing, one of the easiest way would be to participate in challenges. Those can be set by others, or set by yourself. In the latter case you can make it as easy or hard as you want. You could set yourself challenges like:
  • This month I make at least 5 photos of a sunset, all noticeably different,
  • I want this month to make a collage about the color orange, with at least 8 different photos,
  • I want this month 4 photos of one location, with clearly different lighting conditions.
These examples have one thing in common, they make you think about a subject. And make you see the same subject in different ways. That way you can compare photos and learn yourself what effect things like lighting and composition have on a photo.
My personal problem here is: I am too lazy, so I would most likely half way stop bothering.

I need help!

The part about practice still has a problem. What if you do not see what should be improved? Or cannot think of how to do that? Yes, even with practicing, help from others is needed. That does not count just fro me, but I think it counts for everyone wanting to improve. And preferably, you need help from someone better than you. Because that person can probably see things that you do not, but can also help in tackling those issues.
For example, if I think back, I do recall taking shots of landscapes, without bothering about the horizon. Until someone pointed out that a crooked horizon makes a photo feel awkward or uneasy. And then I started noting it myself. I did see photos with crooked horizons, where at first I did not know why I found them "wrong". This is of course a very simple example, and you do not need an expert in photography to tell you. In fact a noob in photography just told you, so this is really ridiculously easy. By the way, a non straight horizon can serve a photo well, but just keep in mind that it's in general not pleasing.
In the time I have been a little bit more serious about photos than merely taking snapshots... Okay, stop, I still am at the level of merely taking snapshots. So, let's say that I am more serious about giving a photo a bit more thought. Even if only after taking it. Anyway, in that time I did improve. I have read various things about photography. I have moments where I can say in advance that it will make a lousy photo. And I am regularly looking different at photos than I was before.
What I lack is enough critical views over my own photos, telling me what could be improved and giving hints about how. I need help for that from others for that. Preferably people better than me, but that is not necessary. Strangely enough I improved myself a bit by giving critique to photos of others. Because that forced me to really look at those photos and to think about what I liked or disliked. And to give a fair critique, I needed to mention why I felt that way. I could not always tell the "why", but did my best to provide it. So the other person might improve.
Eye of the Master
Eye of the Master
So, yeah, I need help. I need the Eye of the Master. But, given that I do not know a master in photography to help me, I would definitely settle for another option: the many eyes of anyone interested in photography. So, you reader, could be one of those eyes, and I would really appreciate if you would spend a bit of time looking over my photos and telling me what needs to be improved.

As a last part for my fellow noobs: of course, the many eyes would help you too. So don't hesitate to ask others. Make sure to ask people with an interest in photography, though. I found out that asking friends tends to result in: "Good picture!"
And as friendly as it sounds, it is no help at all. But just as you are asking for the eyes of others, spend some time using your eyes for others. They might benefit, just as you will probably benefit. Take some time to look at photos, take some time to find out the strong and weak points of a photo. And above all: discuss this with peers.
Happy chatting with your fellow photographers and let's help each other out. Be each others eyes and one day you might be the one with the Eye of the Master!

P.S. If people would want critique on their photos, the Google community "Society of Photography for Beginners" has a section "Critique my photo". Join and post. You might get more response than just from me. Of course any forum/community/whatever that suits your needs will work. If you have a nice one, please let me know, so I can check it out as well. 

05 April 2017

Your canvas

It's like painting

Past week I was in the zoo, busy with one of my favorite pastimes: shooting photos. Actually it's often the combination of the zoo and the shooting that makes it something I like. It's a calm and relaxing hobby this way. Anyway, this blog is not about what what relaxes me, even if I would say that photography can be a very relaxing hobby. This blog is about photography and so we need to talk about photography. And about painting.
Why painting? Because photographers and painters do have things in common. For example: we both "create" images. A photographer creates the basic image in less than a second. Usually that is, if you go for long exposures then it might be longer. But in general well under a second. And a painter takes slightly longer for that. Perhaps its better to say he takes much longer, but slightly sounds more friendly. And we're friendly people here, right?
Anyway, the painter is completely free to put in the image all he can imagine. A photographer would have to find what he imagines. The painter starts with an empty canvas, on which he can start painting his subject and the surroundings or background of that subject. A photographer gets subject and background at the same time, in that less than a second time, which we call shutter speed.
Now, where am I going with this story? To the background. You see as I was walking around and merrily snapshotting away, I was at a certain spot where I thought: "This will never be a good photo."

What's there in the back?

Ostrich head
Ostrich with green background
The reason I thought so, was because of the background. And it shows that even a not so fast learner like me can make progression. This might have been the first time I was obviously aware of what the image would be, and looking beyond the subject.
Take a look at an earlier photo of an ostrich. The photo was taken in Blijdorp Zoo in Rotterdam. I live close by, so am there regularly, resulting in many times the same kind of photos. Trust me, I can give you more photos of ostriches if you want.
As I suppose you do not want more photos of the ostrich, I'll get back to the photo and what's there to see. Obviously, there is the head of the ostrich. Behind the ostrich is a blurry green and dark background. Some light fence near the bottom and above its head a few light spots. As you will probably see, the ostrich mostly contrasts well with the background, making it stand out. The green background suits this photo as it does not distract from what the photo is to show, namely the head of an ostrich.
Them the fence and the bright spots above the ostrich. These make less nice backgrounds. In fact if this would be mostly filling the frame, I would have called this a failed photo. Given that they are limited in how much they cover of the frame, they are less disrupting. They are still distractions, but in my humble opinion do in this case add a little to the photo. Wonder why? Because it breaks the monotony a bit. Of course, this is a subjective opinion, but as it's my photo, I am the one deciding whether it remains there or not.
Should you wonder if I thought all this when I took the shot? No, I did not. I just clicked and when I was at home and looking over my photos, deciding which ones to keep and which ones to throw away, then I found this one fine enough to keep. Here the background makes a mostly non-distracting contrast with the subject, allowing the ostrich to easily grab attention.

So, blurry it is!

No, not so fast. As I found out, there are almost no absolutes in photography. The blurry background worked well for the ostrich head. But it adds no context, it tells nothing about where the photo was taken, nor conveys much feeling. There you have the other thing your background can do. Your background is adding the context. It might not always make the subject stand out more, but it still provides information about that subject.
Monument in Salzburg
On Kapitel Platz in Salzburg
Look at the photo I made on a business trip to Salzburg. Standing on the Kapitalplatz, near this ball. Now, this is a typical point and shoot image. I was there, and clicked. There is no thought in it about composition, and it's in general not a very interesting photo. Except of course to me, as it is a reminder of my time there. And in this case it also serves a bit as an example in a blog.
This background is very different from the previous example, which is caused by the aperture. Well, the camera I used for this photo would not even allow me to set aperture, so I would not have been able to change it, should I have wanted. But unlike the ostrich, this photo is better served by this background. The ball is rather boring and the surroundings are adding the context this photo needs even for me. You can see tourists, part of the square and on the hill you see Festung Hohensalzburg. It gives an indication about where this ball is. It probably implies I was there on a holiday or so, having a good time. I can tell you, a bit to the left next to the tent on the photo was a terrace where they sold Schnapps und Bier. They had quite tasty stuff there and as I was there on Friday afternoon after work, I did enjoy the drinks.

What does not work?

Birds on stones
Crappy photo, obviously
This! This does not work. In this quite old image, I suppose I wanted to have a photo of the birds. Besides the birds not even making a nice composition as they are now, the background ruins it completely.
The background does not help at all with emphasizing the subject. In some points it does not even contrast nice. You can also see there is a lot in the background. There are the stones in different colors, a fence, foliage, some water at the front, a bucket on a pole, branches poking in the frame on the sides. A building in the back. And somewhere between all that are also a few white birds.
This photo lacks everything, but just imagine that the birds would be sharp on it. And then imagine the background would mostly consist of these orange stones. I bet you can imagine that this "adjustment" would make the photo less confusing. There are at that point two things. The structure of the orange stones and the contrast with the white birds. I doubt it would work well, but it would be a much less confusing photo with more chance to lead the viewer towards the subject.
The current background does not add contrast, it does not add context, it helps in no way to bring over anything. I doubt you can find any painting that is as messy as this one. Here, I picked the wrong canvas.

Choosing your canvas

So, we're back to the painter. Like a painter we could put anything we want on our canvas. But unlike a painter, a photo comes with subject and background at the same time. Even if we can replace backgrounds, or subjects in post processing, we cannot really do that when we make the photo. So while we are much faster filling our canvas, taking less than a second, we are usually taking much longer to search for a suitable subject. Completed by a suitable background.
When making a photo, try to look behind the subject. What is there? Does it distract? Does it help the subject stand out? Look through your viewfinder and try to determine for the items in your background whether they add something to the photo. And if not, see if you can leave it out of the photo. But also, move that camera away from your eyes for a moment and look around. Would another angle give you a better background? Or perhaps stand on another spot and get a different context on your photo. You're like a painter and before you start, it can be well worth the time to look and think what you want on your canvas.

Note 1: I regrettably rarely take much time to think about my photo, but they say that you will get better at it if you keep trying. And the fact that I actually had the thought last week, shows I am slowly improving. And if I can, anyone can.

Note 2: I will grab my pitch fork and torch and hunt down anyone even thinking of sharing that last picture. Unless you accompany it with a photo that is more horrible. And I challenge you to find one that's worse than this.