Constraints are Important

Most of us would say we don’t like constraints. But I believe constraints are fundamentally necessary for art and most things.

If there were no constraints, everything would be possible. There would be little or no creativity or learning because everything is too easy. Any art form I know of relies on its constraints. Take painting: paint on a canvas is (mostly) 2 dimensional, canvases are usually rectangular, they are (somewhat) constrained in size, they don’t glow or move or talk. In addition, each particular sub-medium of painting introduces more constraints. What you can do with watercolors is different from what you can do with oil.

Or consider a cello, one of my favorite instruments. It does not have the range of a piano, it is designed to play only 1 note at a time, it is relatively slow because it requires fairly large movements of both hands to play it. But it has a wonderful mellow sound that can produce very pleasing music, when played in a way to take advantage of the constraints of a cello.

Likewise photography is a very constrained medium. It is 2 dimensional, rectangular, static (I’m not discussing video), limited in resolution and speed, depth of field is limited, and so much more. Sounds like a real pain. Why even try to use this? Because great images can be made by recognizing the constraints and using them to advantage.

Consider the image above. Taken at night it required seconds to expose well. That would possibly blur the subjects. It was especially difficult since I did not have a tripod and an 8 second hand held exposure would just be a blurred smear of light streaks. Now, I sometimes like to do things just like that, but not this time. So by bracing the camera on a park bench and pressing it down firmly, I was able to get a sharp image of everything except the airplane taking off, which is exactly what I wanted. This uses the constraints of the medium to show the passage of time, something you could not see live.

A creativity exercise I use and recommend is to limit yourself to 1 camera and one lens on a photo outing. It will seem frustrating at first, but with practice you will learn to see just as you lens sees. You will automatically recompose things to fit what you have. It is exciting and freeing and it helps your creative eye by training it to use the discipline of constraints to improve your vision.

So stop viewing constraints as a hinderance. When you push against them it is an opportunity to improve as an artist, writer, teacher, employee, manager — person.

Gesture

Gesture has become an important concept to me. I was introduced to a more broad meaning of it by Jay Maisel. Jay is one of my favorite photographers to follow. I hate him for his work (it is so good) and he is an abrasive New Yorker with an outspoken opinion on everything. But I tend to agree with his opinions.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary says gesture is “a movement usually of the body or limbs that expresses or emphasizes an idea, sentiment, or attitude“. Boring, but we know what that means. We see people using gestures all the time. It is instinctive to us. Jay has taught me to look for and be more aware of those gestures. It is usually a key instant, a decisive moment as Cartier-Bresson would say. Looking for moments punctuated by gestures has improved my candid people photography immensely.

But even more important to me, Jay expanded the concept. He says that almost anything can express gestures: trees, buildings, lamp posts, anything. I look at it as an implied relationship between things. That has broadened my creative vision. When I can find it, I now look for more than just an object in isolation. I look for implied relationships between it and other things in its environment.

The image with this post is a good example. I see an implied gesture between the tree and the cloud. I know, this is just silly anthropomorphism and the tree is not aware of the cloud. In a pst life I used to be an Engineer; I’m used to cold rationalism. But don’t take it away from me. Seeing the tree as being curious or longing to touch a cloud makes it deeper and alive for me. And I will pretend like it is true. Finding and expressing gestures has become part of my creative quest. The artist part of me wants to believe it is real.

A Road Less Traveled

(Apologies to Robert Frost for misrepresenting his great poem)

If you shoot from your car, I believe the way you travel affects the results you get. Following a road less traveled can be as important as where you go.

I was visiting with my friend Cole Thompson (a great black & white photographer; check out his web site and blog) and we discussed the way we like to travel and how it affects us. We agreed that freeways and main highways are something we avoid when possible.

This is something I have long held as a personal belief, but I had never really tried to express why. I’m very intuitive and I trust my instinct, even when I don’t have a conscious, rational argument for it. In trying to get deeper into my belief I see that I relate driving an interstate highway to watching TV. You are in a brain dead state. You are switched off. For the driving, you react to what’s around you, but you don’t really see anything. Even if something interesting manages to catch your attention, you are unlikely to overcome the inertia of the highway and pull off to do some photography. Your mind set is to get on down the road, keep moving, rack up the miles, get to your destination on schedule.

Smaller roads

In most of the country there is a marvelous secondary network of roads. US highways (think Route 66 ☺), State highways, even county roads are often very good ways to explore more scenic and interesting places than you encounter along the freeway. Speeds are generally slower and you go through towns. Actual little towns with cafes and gas stations and people sitting on park benches visiting. Have you been there recently?

But, this is SLOWER! Yes, and that’s a key. Slow down your pace. Take time to see new things. Don’t be in such a hurry that you hesitate to stop to explore someplace new or experiment with a photo that may (or may not) turn out interesting. If you are traveling on a smaller road it seems much easier to hit pause and take a detour.

Dalhart discovery

On a photo explore recently I was traveling back from Texas to Colorado. I took a back road out of Dalhart, just because I had never been that way. To my surprise I spent nearly 3 hours going from Dalhart to Texline, and it’s only 36 miles as the crow flies! I got caught up in the incredible beauty of this wide open high plains area on that particular cold morning with frost on everything. No regrets spending the time, even though it did put me later than I wanted getting home. I won’t remember or regret being late. I will remember this area. When you find something worthwhile, stop to explore it.

And that, to me, is what it is all about. If we call ourselves an artist we should be working our art. Our brain should be engaged and our head should be swiveling every chance we get. If we are in a semi coma on the freeway we are not following our art. Slow down, look around, take the path less traveled.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Technology is Important

Technology is important in photography, maybe more than most other arts. I sometimes hear photographers say “I’m not interested in the technology; I just want to make pictures.” This seems to usually have one of 2 meanings: either they really do know the technical side but they are making an exaggerated statement to say that artistic considerations are more important, or they really don’t consider the technology. This later group is needlessly limiting their potential.

The term “photography” comes from Greek words meaning “writing with light”. It is a good name. Photography is unique among arts in that (for the most part) we start by capturing something that is there in front of the camera. Most other visual arts start with a blank canvas and the image has to be built from scratch by the artist. I’m not arguing that this makes photography more of less valuable than, say, painting. Just that the process is different.

Since we are capturing something that exists, we must know how to use the tools we have to maximize our success. Taking digital image capture as the norm, there is the lens, the camera body, the image correction process, and the creative manipulation process. Modern photography absolutely requires a good computer system.

  • Lens : The focal length and maximum f/stop determine the envelope of what can be captured for a certain scene. The focal length sets the magnification or “cropping” or framing of the subject. The f/stop choice determines the depth of field — the relative amount of the field of view that is in acceptable focus. They also interact to control the amount of light entering in to the camera sensor.
  • Camera body: In a typical modern camera this controls the exposure, the focus, the shutter speed, the image capture, and the initial image processing. Exposure is a combination of the ISO speed (the relative sensitivity setting of the sensor), the aperture, and the shutter speed. The image is captured on the sensor, a large silicon chip. The sensor is perhaps the most critical piece of technology in the system. It has a maximum number of pixel it can capture and a dynamic range — the range of brightest to darkest data it can record. The data coming from the sensor is not the image ready for viewing. It must have sophisticated and high speed processing done to it before it can be written to the memory card or even previewed on the back of the camera.
  • Image correction: Even after the processing done in the camera, every image needs some correction. This is not a flaw, it is a required part of the process. Typical processing at this stage include color correction, a little bit of sharpening, some tone correction (e.g. reduce highlights and/or raise shadows), and cropping.
  • Creative manipulation: This is a later stage of processing, maybe using in the same software; maybe not. This may include tone mapping, black & white conversion, removing extraneous objects, compositing images together, blurring, sharpening, and many other operations.
  • I’m not even considering here the final output. This can be prints, web postings, stock images, etc.

This is neither a tutorial of digital processing or meant to scare you away from photography. It is just stating what is involved to do a better than average job.

The point is that a good artist will have an excellent working knowledge of every one of these steps. Each one is an important factor in determining the final outcome. You have to become very familiar with your tools. It is necessary to work with them over and over for so many repetitions that they are second nature. An artist must make dozens of conscious decisions, often in a fraction of a second, in the dark, or in bad weather, to get the result they envisioned. This might be heresy to many, but my opinion is that an old camera you are intimately familiar with is better than a sophisticated new camera that you don’t know how to use quickly. (So get the new camera and spend a lot of time learning it 🙂

Any visual art involves making things. Making things requires tools. A good artist learns their tools well. This is one of the things that separates the good ones from the mediocre. When I hear someone say “I don’t do technology” I interpret it to mean “I’m not serious about my art.” Is that unfair? Not to me, but let me know what you think.

Be Uncomfortable

Humans don’t naturally like to be uncomfortable. We want to retreat to safety and the familiar. Whether it is speaking in public or joining a new group or expressing an opinion or changing jobs or doing something different artistically, we resist the discomfort. It’s easier and safer to keep low, to not let people know our aspirations, to not reach for that prize. After all, then no one will tell us that’s silly and we can’t do that.

Most of us have a little voice inside that tells us “Stop. Don’t do that. The risk isn’t worth it. Remember that time you did something like this and you were really embarrassed?” That voice is trying to help us do what it thinks is best for us, that is, staying on the safest path. That is a type of self-preservation. But that voice doesn’t look at the bigger picture. Sometimes discomfort is not bad. It may often be exactly what we need.

If we stay in our comfort zone we never try anything new; we do not get out of our rut. We do not grow and develop. We do not experience all we should in life. We can get to the end of our days and look back with regret on the dreams we were never brave enough to pursue. Pursuing and accomplishing are different things. We may not write the next Great American Novel, but the attempt will teach us a lot and help us discover things about ourself. We may never become a celebrated musician, but the study brings us a lot of discipline and satisfaction. We may never become wealthy and famous as an artist, but the path expands our creativity and skill.

Safety says to stay home and watch TV. Our creative urge tells us to get off the couch, pick up our camera (or whatever creative device you use) and get outside and make something. Sitting on the couch is easy. No risk. No failure. Going out to create something is hard. It requires thought and it risks “failure”. I believe there is no comparison, though. Long term, TV will rot your brain and your self-esteem. Making things will make you a better person. Not inspired? Get to work. Inspiration comes while you are working, not while you are sitting around thinking “creative thoughts.”

Failing is not a bad thing. Failing is not trying. Failing may mean you reached for something you weren’t ready for yet. Keep growing, learning, developing your skills and your curiosity. Someday you may get there. Or maybe not. Either way, you satisfied that longing inside yourself and you became a better person.