Photographic Time

Calf roping

The camera’s shutter speed setting creates a unique art form. The camera captures instants too short for the eye to perceive. Or it can stay open for very long times allowing motion to be recorded. Photographic time is a distinct concept. It is one of the things that is exclusive to photography.

A painting starts on a blank canvas. The image is created one brush stroke at a time, exactly as the artist envisions. No more; no less. Nothing is there that was not placed there by the artist.

The camera is just the opposite. Each time the shutter opens an entire scene is captured. Everything in view of the lens is recorded on the sensor (within the limits of dynamic range). Whether or not the photographer wanted it there, it will be recorded if it is visible. The general problem of the photographic artist is to balance everything so that the shutter lets in everything we want and only what we want.

The photographic artist has several tools available to tailor the outcome, besides the obvious of arranging the scene the way he wants. The main tools are position (move!), lens choice, aperture and shutter speed. We are concentrating on shutter speed this time, as it is one of the things that makes photography different.

Most photographs are taken with a moderate shutter speed to create images that look conventionally normal to viewers. Normal in the sense that it looks like what they would see with their eye. This causes no surprise. This is the way you take most of your selfies.

At one extreme, though, the shutter can seem to “freeze” time. Most good cameras have a shutter speed down to the neighborhood of 1/8000 second. With a fast flash even shorter effective times can be stopped. This allows bullets to be frozen in flight, drops hitting liquid and bouncing, a ball “squishing” as it impacts a hard surface. These phenomena cannot be observed by the eye. They happen too fast.

At the other extreme, the shutter can stay open for seconds, minutes, even hours to let action be captured in one frame. This end of the spectrum is generally of more interest to me in my creative work. It allows for a path to be traced. Common items can take on a whole different meaning when streaked or smeared for unusually long times. It is fairly common to see cascades or waterfalls shot at slow speeds to let the water flow streak together. Night shots often show car lights tracing long paths along the road. A simple shot of a field of long grass takes on a new feeling when the long exposure lets us see the wind blowing the grass.

I enjoy using the camera as a creative tool to let us see scenes not typically captured by other types of art. My work is more often at the slow shutter speed end. I like capturing motion. The image with this blog shows a fast action shot hand held at a slow shutter speed – the opposite of what most people do. For me, motion is best represented by blurred movement. I have friends who work more at the extremely fast speed of frozen motion. That’s great and I really enjoy some of their work. It is not how I think, though. Photographic time is a means of creatively showing aspects of the world in ways that are unique to photography.

Appreciating Imperfection

Playing among giant hamburgers

Maybe it’s from getting older, maybe it’s from realizing more and more how imperfect I am, but I have developed a greater appreciation of imperfection. As a matter of fact, there are philosophies of “admirable imperfections”.

My friend recently made me a wooden bowl. It’s beautiful. But he pointed out a couple of small imperfections in it. That made me appreciate it even more. It has character that could not be duplicated if he made another similar one. I value it even more because of the imperfections.

Michael Freeman touched on this briefly in his book The Photographer’s Vision. Michael is a very articulate author who is excellent at communicating difficult photographic concepts. I wish I could call him a friend, but I have never met him in person. I just feel like I know him because I have read so much of his work.

Michael argues that the growth of photojournalism (think Life magazine) and the freedom brought by the 35mm camera format led to a change of attitude toward “perfection” in images. The pendulum swung over to photographers embracing an intentionally casual style of shooting. This developed into an appreciation of imperfection. Some of the leading influencers of this were Robert Frank, Elliott Erwitt, Richard Avedon, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The attitude ties into an older Japanese philosophy known as Wabi-Sabi. I will have more to say about this on another day. It is a large topic.

But where am I on this? Well, I am not to the extreme of Robert Frank or some of that group, even though I often shoot with a casual indifference to normal “rules” of composition or exposure or sharpness. If you know me you would know I treat most “rules” with a similar disdain. On the other hand, for some subjects, I LOVE achieving a crunchy crisp sharpness in a formal composition. One of the things I am most consistent about is my inconsistency. To my value system they are not at all inconsistent. But to you who are (thankfully) not in my head, it would leave you scratching your head to see my body of work.

Take the image at the top of this blog. This was a quick “grab” shot with a really lousy point-and-shoot camera. It could have been composed better. If I had time to “work” the scene I’m sure I could have improved it. But I didn’t. I love what I got. It’s grainy and blurry and you can hardly tell it is a beach with waves washing in. But it has character and it was an unplanned “once in a lifetime” moment. I’m very glad to have even gotten this and I have no apologies for the imperfections.

Perfection is overrated. It can easily become sterile and lifeless. Or it can be thrilling and inspiring. I guess I believe it really comes down to the vision and ability and intent of the photographer.

If It Doesn’t Excite You, Why Should It Excite Anyone?

A perfect moment and place

This idea is taken from one of the greats, Jay Maisel. One of his quotes, paraphrased, is “If the thing you’re shooting doesn’t excite you, why makes you think it will excite anyone else?” Good advice. I try to remember it all the time, but I sometimes find myself trying to force it.

Sometimes when I am out shooting (most of my shooting is outside) I can feel it. There is a tingling in my gut, my pulse is racing, I just know I’m going to love this image and I hope I don’t mess it up. Please let the light hold for a few seconds more; please don’t let the person move until I get the picture; please let me get to the place I need to be to get the shot before things change. This is one of the adrenaline moments of photography. It is like being is a flow state when you are working. Everything aligns and falls into place. Things get easy. It is a joy.

Sometimes, though, it seems like you can’t find a good image anywhere. You look and look and nothing excites you. It is a natural tendency to force it. To talk yourself into believing it is better than it is. Yeah, I can make something out of this in Photoshop. This will composite with something and it will get better. It’s really not so bad. It is actually kind of interesting…

All artists probably have a lot of self talk in our heads telling us all kinds of things. This wishful dialog can be dangerous, though. It can fool us into settling for mediocre instead of holding out for a higher standard. Mediocre is always going to be mediocre. No amount of wishful thinking is going to magically transform it into a portfolio image. Be realistic with yourself. Sometimes you just have to pack it in and move on to someplace else.

However, nothing is black and white (except black and white prints ☺). The muse, if that is how you view the creative spirit, works in strange and non-obvious ways. Sometimes you don’t get the tingle in the gut at the time. There are times when a scene just calls to you without necessarily exciting you. I have learned to go with it and shoot what seems interesting, even if I don’t fully understand why. This is not the same as trying to make something out of nothing.

Sometimes looking at images later on the computer, maybe weeks or months later, the light bulb goes on and I realize my instinct was drawing me to something very interesting. Maybe I did not get “the” shot that time, but it opened the idea and the vision. If possible, I will go back to the location later with this new inspiration and capture what the little itch was trying to tell me.

The basic idea from Jay Maisel still applies. If it doesn’t excite me, why should I expect it to excite you? Maybe I am sometimes slow to pick up on the excitement, but that is part of the creative joy. You, the audience, deserve the best, the exciting ones. I should never try to pawn off mediocre images on you just because that was the best I could find at the time.

Living a Rich Life

Jumble of winter aspens

I have come to a place in my life where I understand that living a rich life is much more rewarding than recognition or even money.

But what is a “rich” life? This will vary for different people. For me, I find it to be having a great, supportive spouse, family, good friends to share things with, enough money to do many of the things I want without worrying, and time and opportunity to pursue my creative interests. It rests on a foundation of peace that comes from a secure relationship with God.

There are 2 words that summarize a lot of this for me: Contentment and Gratitude. Contentment is not the same as happiness. Happiness is a momentary state caused by circumstances. Riding a roller coaster may give you happiness (and fear). A few minutes later you may be sad when the ice cream falls off your ice cream cone. Contentment is a decision to accept and get the most out of whatever comes. I can be content when things are going great and also content when trouble comes. It is a state of mind, a decision, something I have determined beforehand to do. I’m l lucky, too, that I can be content being alone with myself. A lot of my time is spent alone. I’m OK with that. When I’m driving I seldom even turn on any audio. I would rather spend the quiet time just thinking or letting my mind wander. That ability is a blessing.

Gratitude comes from the knowledge that I am very fortunate. Hard work and determination do not always lead to success. I know I am very blessed in my circumstances. I don’t think anyone inherently deserves anything, and the fact that I have above and beyond what I need is something I am grateful for every day. This is not just a result of my hard work. Those blessings do not necessarily mean riches in a monetary sense. But I consider myself one of the most fortunate people I know. I have good health, I can eat or drink what I want, we can plan a trip with good friends and have a great time enjoying each other’s company, we can get together with family and like their company. Basically, gratitude means I do not believe everything I have comes from my own talent and effort. I am blessed.

But this blog is nominally about art. How does that apply? I now approach my art from a place of joy. I have a vision and it is unique. Life has put me in circumstances that let me spend time pursuing my art and vision and that gives me contentment. Since I see interesting things all around me, my art focuses mostly on out of the way things I find that I hope to have you see in a new way. I am grateful to see these things and be able to show them to you through my vision. I hope to bring convey my sense of wonder to you.