September 14, 2005

Photo Notes 2: Photography Advice for Ruby in Minnesota

Another photography related email comes from Ruby a junior high school student who asks: "What advice do you have for me so that I can take pictures like yours? I want to post them online."

Hmmm. Well Ruby I think the goal would be not to take pictures like mine or someone else's, but to take pictures that are your own, that show a little bit about how you see the world. For me photography is not about what you choose to shoot, but about what you choose to leave out. And ultimately it's all about emotion. What do you love? Or hate? What things do you see that other people miss? What moves you?

Highly biased advice:

I've been taking pictures most of my life so it's pretty much organic. Know your cameras. Feel comfortable with them. Get to the point where you don't have to think about how to make the camera do what you want it to do.

Tell a story.

I always tell myself to get closer. The closer you get (within reason) the more emotion you will find.

Long lenses are not a substitute for getting closer.

If you are shooting people look your subjects in the eye.

Slow down. Hang out with your subjects. Try waiting 10 minutes before pulling out the camera, or better yet, an hour.

Wait for the light to get better.

One of the silliest comments I see again and again is "nice depth of field" (ironically usually posted when the depth of field is shallow. People have gotten so used to digital cameras with high ISOs that stop down and keep everything in focus that they have forgotten the possibilities of wide aperture photography. Ditto for slow shutters speeds and motion. This said, don't let the wide aperture become a crutch. Just because you've focused on something at f 1.4 doesn't mean it's interesting.

Don't post pictures of cats (dogs are ok, dogs show emotion, but be sparing).

Avoid clichés. Some common clichés: zoo pictures, pictures shot and then modified with stock Photoshop filters, sunsets, flowers (unless your audience is full of horticulturalists nobody cares), abandoned buildings, graffiti, mannequins, people in clown makeup (or some other silly costume), fall foliage, water on glass (usually shot with a wide aperture), random people walking down an anonymous street, people in wacky t-shirts, pretty clouds, silly signs, empty roads, seagulls, swans, ducks, water reflections, couples on the beach.

Just because you shoot with a macro lens/holga/polaroid doesn't make it interesting.

When taking travel photos try to avoid the touristic. What is touristic? If you see a gaggle of tourists shooting in a particular spot, the images taken from there will be touristic. If it should be on a postcard, it's touristic. Photos of "natives" in tribal dress shot with a long lens, usually smiling at the photographer are touristic.

Turn off automatic stuff: auto-focus, auto-exposure, auto-whatever. Make some decisions.

Edit. Edit. Edit. (I am horrible at this.)

Shoot black and white now and then.

When I choose a picture to post I ask myself "so what?". If I can't answer that for myself, I figure it's not worth posting.


Have fun.

posted at 02:52 AM by raul

Filed under: photography


09/14/05 06:14 AM

"...but to take pictures that are your own, that show a little bit about how you see the world." I agree. Nice post. looking forward to checking out your pictures.

09/14/05 11:36 AM

Thank you very much Raul for your very enlightening post. It was much more than I was expecting! Through all you have to share, your hatred of cats comes shining through. I love that.

In critiquing my own photography, I think I actually need to get further away from the subject. I generally shoot with a 24mm or 50mm lens but I am not conscious enough of capturing the subject in context. Too often I am focused solely on the emotion and expression of the person in the frame and not enough of world surrounding them.

The great difficulty for me when taking photos of people is to try and stay relevant. As you pointed at, capturing "natives" smiling from the reach of your long lens has no more anthropological relevance than serving McDonald's chicken McNuggets at a dinner party and calling it haute cuisine.

About the best advice you've administered is to get to know your subject before taking the shot. I believe that a lot of the magic of your photos is actually a capture of the human connection you've created showing through. Human beings are great at reconstructing a three dimensional experience from a sliver of a two dimensional one--such pulling an amalgamation of memories and emotions from the comparatively simply colors and shapes of a photograph or a film--and your photos seem to evoke particularly strong sensations.

For me, I am sure my talent will come in time and learning to relax, slow down and get to know my subjects better will help a lot with this endeavor. A great many things come with age and experience I've realized.

Thank you for the excellent write-up.

Jordan (also from Minnesota)

09/16/05 07:52 PM

"Don't post pictures of cats (dogs are ok, dogs show emotion, but be sparing)."

Unless you shoot like Daido Moriyama (who can make a plate of fish look like your last supper)...

09/17/05 07:48 PM

Good tips. Editing your own shots is probably the hardest part of it all.

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