Monthly Archives: October 2013

How We Judge A Photograph

How do we judge whether a photograph is good or not?  I’m sure there are many ways to answer this question, and, being someone who enjoys ducking difficult questions when possible, I’m not going to provide an answer here.  What I will say is that I am troubled by the equation of technical perfection with the quality of being good or bad, an exercise in judgment that I come across a lot among a certain set of photographers.

I do believe that technical ability is important, and can be an important consideration when formulating an opinion on whether a photograph is good or not.  But far more important for me is the feeling I get when I look at a photograph I like.  There is an instant click, a sense that everything is just right, that is felt more viscerally than understood intellectually.  The best photographs are the ones that sustain that feeling over time, that keep me coming back again and again to look some more.

I was listening to new music on Pandora Internet radio recently (one of the best things yet to come out of the Internet), and observed a similar phenomenon.  Some songs seemed to have individual elements I liked – riffs, melodies, lyrics, etc. – but they just didn’t come together in a way that was pleasing to my ear.  Others seemed to have nothing individually special about them, but just came together in ways that I instantly liked.  I pretty much knew right away the music I liked versus other music not so much.  Aside from meeting a certain minimum threshold of listenability, the decision had more to do with the feeling the song produced in me than the technical qualities of the instrumentalists and sound engineers who did the recording.

So when I observe certain photographers nit-picking the work of others – is the focus a little soft on the edges, is there a lack of detail in the shadows, could the composition have been improved by positioning the camera an inch to the left or right – I have to roll my eyes a bit.  I really think over-emphasis on the technical misses the point.  Art should be about moving people, not checking off a list of technical virtues.  Again, while I do think technical concerns are legitimate, they are far less important than the feeling conveyed by an image.

Technical concerns were on my mind during the making of the image in this post, “Moon Over Forest Canyon.”  In the end, though, I simply liked the feeling of the piece, and so I’ve added it to my portfolio.

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Close to Home

Black Trees Series 2, No. 2

The image in this post, “Black Trees, Series 2, No. 2,” was captured on a stormy fall evening just outside of Breckenridge, Colorado.  That’s a little over two hours’ drive from my home in Fort Collins, Colorado.  After informally surveying my catalog of images, I would say that the vast majority of them were captured within a day’s drive of where I live.  Even most of those were taken here in Northern Colorado, probably within only two or three hours of my home.

I’ve observed that a number of photographers have catalogs that don’t really reflect the place where they reside.  It seems they must travel to photograph.  One photographer friend told me as much, saying essentially that it was hard to stay inspired by the areas around his home – they just were too familiar.  Interestingly, if I were to have made a prediction about myself before I really got into photography, I probably would have placed myself into this group.  I love to travel, and I frequently see things that capture my photographic interests when I do.  So, it’s come as a bit of a surprise to me that most of my images were made so close to home.

Granted, I live in a beautiful place – Colorado, with access to the stunning landscapes both here and in neighboring states.  It’s easy to stay inspired.  Still, I think there’s more to it than that.  Part of it stems from the commitment I made to incorporate photography into my daily life, and not reserve it for special “photography outings” or “photography trips.”  When you make photography part of your everyday routine – even if it’s just to keep it actively on your mind and engaged in your thinking  – then I think you necessarily end up photographing the environment around where you live, since that’s where most of us spend most of our time.  It’s a great way to practice your skills, expand the number of images in your portfolio, and to both explore and be informed by the area where you live.

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The Expectations Game

White Tree No. 4 (Know Your Heart)I don’t know about you, but every time I begin to work on a new image – or write a new blog post, or post something on social media, or generally do anything that requires a degree of effort and creativity – I play the expectations game.  The image in this post, “Know Your Heart (White Tree No. 4),” was no exception.  What is the expectations game?  It’s having an expectation for an end result, and being intimidated by that expectation as you begin to work on the task.

The expectations game can take many forms.  Sometimes it’s internal:  my last image was good, will this one be?  The capture was perfect, are my editing skills sufficient to realize that potential?  Sometimes it’s external:  my last image was well received, will this one be?  I usually work in this kind of subject matter, will people abandon me if I try something new?

The intimidation created by the expectations game can be a real problem.  Sometimes it hinders creativity, such as wherein you use the same, safe methods and practices over and over again, because they’ve worked for you in the past.  Other times it closes you off to potential avenues for growth and learning, such as wherein you don’t share your work with other people for fear of rejection.  In its worst form, it can stop you from working at all.

How do you win the expectations game?  Don’t play.

Easier said than done!  In fact, I doubt that I personally ever will be able to eliminate the expectations game entirely.  But, expectations can be managed.  One way I manage expectations is to realize that not every image I make will be the best image I’ve ever made.  Not every new image needs to be better than the previous one.  If you pause to consider for a moment, hopefully you will conclude (as I have) it’s unlikely this could ever be the case for anyone, and it’s unreasonable to expect it to be so.  Instead, if an image I make meets a minimum threshold of quality – a threshold set by me, designed to reflect both my own objective and subjective considerations of what satisfies me – then I consider it a success.  I find this approach has worked well for me, allowing me both to keep my expectations in check for any individual image I’m working on, and to produce a body of work that, if it pleases no one else, at least has pleased me.

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Diamonds in the Rough

White Tree No. 3 (Embrace the Night)

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a diamond-in-the-rough as “having exceptional qualities or potential but lacking refinement or polish.”  Whatever the end result, I certainly can attest that the image in this post, “White Tree No. 3 (Embrace the Night),” began by lacking in refinement and polish.

This image was captured during the wonderful summer of 2012, when I was spending several evenings a week photographing in Rocky Mountain National Park.  I photographed as the sun was setting and, as is my habit, continued photographing until well after the sun had sunk below the horizon.  As the light grew fainter and fainter, the images naturally grew darker and darker, until there simply wasn’t enough light to get a good capture without undertaking shutter speeds of several minutes.  This image was one of the last I captured, and therefore one of the more substantially underexposed.  You can see just how underexposed at the end of this post, where I have included the unedited JPG captured by my camera.

I didn’t return to this image until more than one year later, and even then by accident.  I was going through my image archives, looking for something completely different, and time was running out because I had to be out the door shortly for an appointment.  I didn’t find the image I was looking for, but with only about five or ten minutes left, I stumbled across this one.  With time short, and expectations low, I decided to open up the image just to see what I could make out of it.

I’m glad I did.  I truly am astonished at just how much information was able to be recovered from this file.  A simple adjustment of the exposure slider to the RAW file brought back an incredible amount of tonality and detail that was still lurking in the capture.  Because the final image still is quite low key, I perhaps didn’t have to push the exposure adjustment to extremes, but still I’m impressed at just how much shadow detail can be recovered from a RAW file when using a digital camera.

The bigger lesson, of course, is that this image turned out to be a diamond in the rough.  A little refinement and polish, and I’m quite happy with it.  It makes me wonder, though, how many other diamonds in the rough are hiding in my image archives.  Now that I know they may be there, I’ll be looking for them.


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