It Is What It Is

A story and a lot of unanswered questions

It is what it is. This is actually an expression I hate, but I’m used to it because some of my kids occasionally use it. In one sense, what I photograph is what it is.

My methods

I photograph outdoors in natural light. The subjects I shoot are “found” things. Things I encounter on my way and I shoot them as I find them. That is, I do not stages shots. I will very seldom move anything or do any “gardening” to remove distractions or competing elements.

This is the method that appeals to me. There is a kind of honesty or transparency about it that feels right.

One of the things I am indirectly pointing out in it is that most of us go through our daily life with blinders on. We tend to be oblivious to most things we encounter unless they are what we are looking for or they seem a threat.

What I want to do is take these found subjects and elevate them in a way that makes them interesting and to gently say, “see what you missed by not being mindful”.

Explore

To accomplish this, I have to be an explorer. I forage for images rather than planning them. And it requires heightened senses. I have to be outside my head and paying attention to things around me. Some may say I’m out of my head, but I will call it outside my head. I have to quiet the inner critic and be constantly scanning around me for interesting things.

It is a learned skill that I have practiced for quite a while. While I am far from perfect, I feel like I am getting better at it.

It has become a joy to me. I look forward to these explores. Most often I am just wandering in the vicinity of my studio. Familiar and well worn paths. It constantly surprises me that I can discover new and interesting things in such familiar territory. Some days it is easier than others. But more often than not I find something new or I see something differently. Even if I don’t come back with any images, I have enjoyed getting out and being in tune with what is around me.

Go out empty

One of my inspirations is Jay Maisel. I have mentioned him many times. Jay is a famous photographer living in New York City – now Brooklyn. One of the many things he is famous for is just going out rambling every day on the streets close to home.

He is so good at spotting interesting scenes that it is almost depressing. I would hate him if he weren’t so phenomenal. 🙂

Jay describes what he is doing as “going out empty”. He wants to go out as unprepared as possible so he can get filled up with what the world has to offer. The point he makes frequently is that if he has a certain thing in mind to shoot, that is a mental block. He might find that, but would probably miss everything else that’s on offer.

Through lots of practice I have determined this style works well for me, too.

Make something out of it

So I explore. I wander. I’m searching for things that catch my interest. And when I find them, I don’t rearrange them or clean them up, except maybe for a stray blade of grass or a piece of trash.

Therefore, the challenge is to make something out of what is there. Position, crop, lens choice – these all factor in to making the image. Someone has said the picture is already there, we just have to crop it. There is truth to that. The excellent instructor Ben Willmore once said “What elements are adding to the image? What elements are detracting? How do I remove more of the detractions and add more of the good?” That is a good description of the game: try to remove enough of the bad and include enough of the good.

It is what it is – work with it

It is often stated that everything has been shot. What matters now is our personal treatment of it. Can we use our unique vision to see the subject in a new and interesting way?

I choose to work with things that interest me as I find them. It is what it is. How can I make it the best it can be? It can be a challenge, but the reality is there is a lot more interest in the world around us than we usually notice.

It is a joy to me when someone exclaims over one of my images and I can think – or say out loud – that is right where you go by every day and you’ve never noticed it.

A final quote from Jay Maisel: I want people to see what I see. It’s all out there. It’s a joy to look at.

Yes, it is what it is, but it can be more.

This process works for me. It fits me and there are benefits. I recommend you experiment with it. It might need several outings to become comfortable. You might discover a new world around you.

Let me know your experience!

Today’s image

OK, I didn’t find this around my studio. But thousands of people passed by this daily and I bet few if any ever glanced at the scene closely enough to take notice of it. It was clearly visible from a main highway. There seems to be a story and a lot of unanswered questions wrapped up in a single frame.

I was driving and I turned around and came back to it. I’m glad I took the time. It is a good memory for me.

The scene is gone now. But that is a topic for another day.

Stability

Long exposure with no tripod or monopod

Even the most adventurous of us need a certain amount of stability. But I’m not talking about financial or mental or interpersonal stability today. I’m referring to the never ending debate about tripods vs. monopods.

Why do we need them?

Many people today value crisp, tack sharp images. To achieve this requires good cameras, good lenses, and good technique. One primary factor of the technique is minimizing camera shake.

We tend to talk about camera shake as a binary thing: yes/no, on/off, shake/no shake. The reality is that it is a range. It is kind of like focus. If something is considered in focus, we really mean it has an acceptable level of focus. Good enough for our purpose, not an absolute.

Likewise, for camera shake, we must take the point of view that it must be minimized enough for our need.

Most people tend to hand hold their cameras. I know I do when I can. It is much faster and easier. Achieving sharp images hand held requires special techniques that we will discuss later.

But when we know we need maximum sharpness, the standard response it to pull out the tripod, or monopod. It’s a debate.

Tripods

Tripods are the three-legged things we are all familiar with. They seem to have been around forever and they tend to be pretty large. The three equally spaced legs provides an optimum stable platform in all directions.

Tripods used to be made of wood. Classical and lovely to look at, but heavy, Then they moved to generally bring made of aluminum or alloys. These were lighter and durable. A problem they had, though was vibration. Referred to as dampening when we’re talking about stability. The metal was kind of springy. It would vibrate when perturbed by a force. Like bumping it or when the mirror of your big DSLR “slaps” up to take a picture. The metal legs would vibrate for many milliseconds before stopping. This caused distortion while the shutter was open, which was probably for those same milliseconds.

Later, most high end tripods moved to carbon fiber construction. This material has many advantages, but, of course, it is more expensive. The carbon fiber is strong and relatively light. It has much better dampening than metal, so vibrations are smaller. And if your hand has ever frozen to a metal tripod in the winter, well, carbon fiber doesn’t do this nearly as bad. For me, that by itself is a reason to switch to it.

I have an excellent carbon fiber tripod with a great ball head. I use it for some critical images or long exposures.

Tripod disadvantages

Good tripods, used correctly, provide excellent stability. But this means you have to have it, there, when you need it. Perhaps this means carrying it miles over rugged trails for that one shot.

Personally, I don’t do that much anymore. For me, a photo expedition should be a joy. I’m too old to enjoy carrying a heavy tripod a long ways. Sure, there are small versions that strap conveniently to your camera bag, but they have their problems too. Usually the small ones are short and I have to squat down uncomfortably to use them. Or if they are tall enough, they are not stable enough.

I have a small one that fits nicely in a checked bag for air travel. I often take it. And just as often do not use it.

And using a tripod slows you down a lot. Deciding where to set it, setting it up, mounting the camera, adjusting and leveling it all take quite a bit of time and effort. Some say this is an advantage, because it makes you spend more time considering what you are shooting and the composition of the shot. I partially agree and have experienced this. But often I am in a flow and shooting instinctively. The tripod absolutely gets in the way of this.

Monopods

A monopod is just one leg of a tripod, right? To some people that makes it 1/3 or less as useful as a tripod. Others (including me) would say it can be as useful or more so.

If you are not familiar with them, try this experiment. Take a broom and hold it upside down with the handle down on the floor. How does it move?

You will see that it does not move up or down in the vertical axis. It does more fairly freely in a circular arc left and right, back and forth. Is this minimal amount of stabilization worth it?

To me it often is. The vertical axis is one of the most vibration prone areas for me. And being constrained on the monopod seems to add mass or resistance in the other axes. Either it is real or it is psychological. But in any case, it makes my images more stable.

Monopod advantages

Yes, it is unfair to only talk about tripod disadvantages and monopod advantages, but I want to make a point. There are often ways to overcome the disadvantages of a monopod.

I have a great monopod. It extends to about 7 ft. and has a small but very nice ball head with quick release on it. It is my walking stick. I like that it is light enough and very strong to serve well as a useful and comfortable walking stick. I am far more likely to take it on a hike than I am a tripod.

When I want to take an image, it sets up quickly – basically just attaching my camera to the quick release. It provides a decent degree of stability, and there are techniques I can use to improve if necessary.

For instance, if a railing is handy, I can brace the foot of the monopod against my shoe and force the leg tight against the railing. I have taken very sharp 30 second exposures this way. Trees work fairly well, too. Lean the mounted camera against a tree for added stability. It can be a great tool.

Which to choose?

I probably seem biased. It is more of a pragmatic choice. Tripods are great for stability. It is usually the best choice for long exposures.

Monopods are great when you are out on the trail or otherwise away from your car. If you practice and learn to work with it instead of against it, it can improve many situations to an acceptable level.

I own a really good tripod and a really good monopod. The monopod gets used about 10 times more than the tripod. But I hand hold about 10 times more than either of them.

Parameters of sharpness

To put things in perspective, today’s high pixel count sensors force us to use very good technique to get the results we want. If the image moves as much as 1 pixel during an exposure, we can often detect a blur.

Pixel pitches are measured in microns today. A micron is 1 millionth of a meter. The length of a bacterium is about 1-10 microns. A strand of spider silk is 3-8 microns in width.

How is it ever possible to take a sharp image?

Alternatives

Several things can work for us. The amazing technology in our cameras provides things like in-body stabilization to minimize the effect of camera shake. It usually improves things a lot.

And the electronics are improving to allow higher and higher ISO settings to be used. I consider 400 ISO to be my normal setting rather than the 64 ISO native value. That automatically gives me about a 3 stop speed advantage.

The old “rule” when I was shooting film was that, if you are good, you could hand hold at a shutter speed of twice the focal length. This doesn’t work anymore for our high density sensors. People say the shutter speed should be 3-4 times the focal length. But with the better electronics allowing higher ISO with good results, this is often possible.

Don’t overlook simple but obvious tricks. There may be something to brace the camera on or against. I often lean against a tree or a pole or a wall for added stability. Or I have put the camera on a rock or a bench and used a self timer to trigger the shot. Simple things like these can let you take amazing images in unlikely places.

And there are simple techniques you can adapt that increase the stability of hand held shots. Things like bracing the camera against your forehead and forcing your elbows close against your body. And exhaling slowly as you slowly press the shutter. A video on gun shooting technique could be helpful. They have studied the problem a long time.

So tripod or monopod? I lean toward the monopod. But it is not necessarily an either or choice. There are many creative ways to stabilize your camera. Unless you’re out in the desert with nothing around, there is often something that can be used.

Today’s image

This was shot in an airport (obviously) with no tripod or monopod. I couldn’t set the camera on the table in the restaurant where we were eating because there was a joint in the glass that was in the way. I put my camera on my camera bag on the floor. This is a composite of several 4 second shots.

I used a 2 second timer to allow me to get my hand away and not shake the fragile setup. I could have used the camera app on my phone to trigger it, but that is always so tricky and slow to set up that I seldom do it.

Find the It-ness

Old rusty International Truck. I finally got it's portrait.

Sometimes you just have to make up a word when you can’t find the right one. In this case Jay Maisel made it up. I think he is referring to seeing beneath the surface. If we find the it-ness, we are starting to get to a level where we understand more about the scene. Then maybe we can show it to our viewers.

See past the obvious

Jay seemed to be telling us to get past the first surface response and burrow down to a deeper response to a subject. The normal mode for a lot of us is to see a scene we like, pull the camera up to our eye, and shoot. Done. Go on.

But I think Jay i suggesting we slow down and not necessarily give in to our first instinct. With a little more thought and introspection we often come to a different relationship with a subject or scene. In other words, stop and think. Get in touch with why you are reacting to it and see if you can bring that out more.

There are 3 very interesting videos about Jay Maisel on Kelby One (I am not affiliated with them and I get no benefit for referring them; but it would be worthwhile to subscribe long enough to watch these 3). In each, Jay is spending a day walking around with Scott Kelby, demonstrating his technique and thought process. They are very worthwhile (when Jay is talking, not Scott). It seems like Jay is shooting quickly and instinctively, but keep in mind you are seeing the result of 50 or more years of finely honed craft. When asked about an image he can always articulate a detailed reason why he took it, what it meant to him, and why he composed it like he did. And when he reviews his seemingly quickly grabbed images, it make you want to tell him “I hate you”.

So maybe there is the promise that, with enough practice, little conscious thought is required.

Wabi-Sabi

I always hesitate to bring wabi-sabi up. It is easy to step off into really deep stuff. Apparently you can’t really appreciate it’s true meaning unless you are a native Japanese steeped in Zen Buddhism. There is no simple English translation.

But that doesn’t deter me from trying. Even though I am American and not at all a Buddhism practitioner. 🙂

Explanations often start from breaking down the two words wabi and sabi. One good definition says:

Wabi’ expresses the part of simplicity, impermanence, flaws, and imperfection. On the contrary, ‘Sabi’ displays and expresses the effect that time has on a substance or any object. Together ‘wabi-sabi’ embraces the idea of aesthetic appreciation of aging, flaws, and the beauty of the effects of time and imperfections. The two separate parts when put together, complete each other. They express simplicity and the truest form of an object.

That seems to be an elegantly simple expression of finding the it-ness of something. Regarding a thing with all its flaws and imperfections and appreciating how it changes and weathers and even decays over time is really getting in touch with its essence.

More than the subject

I recently explored the idea of the subject not being the subject. Going on beyond that is this notion of capturing the it-ness of something may be more important that just representing the thing.

The image with today’s post is an example. This old International truck fascinated me for years. It is about 50 miles from my house, not on the way to anywhere, but I visited it many times. I was never satisfied that I had photographed “it”. I took many pictures of the truck, but I never felt I actually got what I felt about it.

Finally, one day I was going by and I knew I needed to visit it one more time. Some junk was starting to encroach on it and, after it setting there rusting for years, it seemed possible that the opportunity might go away.

But this time, instead of jumping out and taking pictures, I just stared and thought a while. I walked around it slowly. All the while I was trying to explain to myself what my feelings were about this truck and how I would take its portrait.

After thinking a long time, I basically just took this one image. To me, it perfectly captures the personality, the story, the history – the it-ness – of the magnificent old truck. I felt a relationship to it.

The next time I came by there, it was all fenced off and junk was stacked all around. The picture opportunity was gone. That makes me sad, but I finally had the picture I wanted. I believe this is a true and accurate portrait of this giant of the Colorado plains. This will always be my memory of that good old truck that I have known a long time.

This is a wabi-sabi story. It is also an example of another of Jay Maisel’s maxims: shoot it now, because it won’t be there when you come back.

Find interest

I have said several times that we can find interest in almost anything if we try. We have to get over looking just at the surface. Maybe it’s not the prettiest of its kind. Maybe there are imperfections. Do those give it character? Does it tell a story of it’s past?

As an extreme example, we have had a lot of forest fires here in Colorado in the last few years. As have many places. It is sad to see a beautiful forest destroyed. But I have found great beauty in burn scars and the re-growth that is happening.

It seems to be more and more a case for me that interest does not equate to pretty. Almost to the extent of being a negative correlation, where pretty implies less interest. So a perfect flower is a thing of beauty, but does that make it the most interesting? I’m not saying it is always true for me, but a “past its prime” specimen may tell a more interesting story of struggle, survival, endurance, and the passing of time.

Try it. Like my example of working on the truck, slow down. Think more. Figure out the it-ness of the thing. Then shoot to capture that.

Print It!

Abstract pseudo-aerial. A trick to edit and print.

Some would argue that an image is not final until it is printed. More and more I am tending to agree. Print it – you will learn a lot and be a better photographer.

What is the thing you are creating?

I am intrigued by the idea of creativity and I have studied creativity research some recently. Real, hard core theoretical psychology. It has been disappointing. One of these days I will write an article on what I have observed.

One of the things I do appreciate about the papers I have read is that they tend to tie creativity to producing something. Sort of the idea that if you just think creative thoughts, are you creative? If you can’t or won’t produce a creative work, is the creativity really there?

There is benefit in producing something and holding it up for yourself and others to see and examine. Small images on a screen do not have the impact

Why a print

A print is real – a tangible, physical product. It takes on a life of its own; it is held, examined, felt, passed around, hung on a wall. It is permanent.

Creating a print changes our thought process and our relationship to the image. We must finalize it, because the print will never change. And we have to re-think it in terms of the limitations of the print medium.

It is kind of like having a child. Initially it is my baby, very closely held and personal and protected. Then it grows up and becomes an independent person.

And by analogy, the print is made to be permanent and independent. It is a work we have produced for others to have and enjoy.

What do we learn

I am amazed by what I learn by printing an image. It was edited for hours until I am sure I am happy with it. Then when the print comes out, it’s “Really? That needs more work”.

Viewing a print is quite different than looking at an image on screen. We have a different relationship with it. Our perception is very different. Even at a simple technical level, an image on a screen is formed by light being generated, an additive process. A print is seen as light reflecting off a substrate as modified by colored pigments. A subtractive process. The perception and the psychological process is different.

But ignoring all technical considerations, there is something about a print that points out all the flaws in your image. Seeing it as a physical representation on paper changes how we look at it and what we see. If you want to find out if your image is any good, print it.

How is it that I can work with an image for hours on screen and not see that sensor dust spot in the sky? Why didn’t I see that the mid tone contrasts are inadequate? And that purple highlight just doesn’t have the punch I wanted. Where did that distracting line leading off the edge come from?

We see a print more critically. Since it is a different process on a different medium we have a fresh look. And a print is far more limited in dynamic range than our camera sensor or computer monitor, so we have to map it differently to get the result we want.

A real thing

Holding our image makes it real. It has weight and texture and it is a permanent work independent of us. To use the baby analogy again, before the child is born it is still kind of an abstract idea. After it is born it is real and living.

In the days of film, making your first print was often a seminal moment. The experience of seeing a black & white image “come to life” in the darkroom bath is often the moment people say they became hooked on photography. It can be somewhat similar with printing, if you do your own. Seeing this baby of yours coming to life on paper right there in your studio is a joy.

Have you held a print? Isn’t it magical? And if you hand a print to someone, watch their reaction. Wonder, joy, maybe fear of ruining it combined with a desire to touch it. They only see images on screens. When it leaps off the screen and becomes a real, physical object they perceive it very differently.

Summary

I am doing more printing recently. I knew it would be a change and a learning, since I had not done it for a while. But even I was not prepared for it. But I love it. A great print is a thing of beauty. The image becomes real, alive, permanent. Like our child, it grows up and has a life of its own.

Try it. It could change your viewpoint.

The Subject Isn’t the Subject

French street scene at night. The comp[osition carries it.

Huh? Wrap your self around that for a minute. When we shoot images, we almost always have a distinct subject. What sense does it make to say the subject isn’t the subject?

Inspired by a quote

This article was inspired by an article by Ian Plant in Nature Photography Network, Feb 8, 2023. In part, he said:

But the single most difficult, most counterintuitive aspect of photography, the one thing that most photographers have a tough time wrapping their heads around, is this: your subject is not your subject. Instead, your subject is just part of the overall visual design. The subject might arguably be the primary element of the design, perhaps the most important part, but it is only a part, nonetheless. To make truly exceptional photographs, you need to include more than just your subject; you also need to include other visual elements that work together with your subject, getting the viewer engaged with the story you are telling with your image.

This requires some careful thought. Many of us tend to be fixated on finding the “right” subject and filling the frame with it. Ian is suggesting that is a limiting view.

What else is there besides the subject?

But if you have a good subject, and if you light it and have adequate depth of field, and you expose it right, doesn’t that make the picture? He says probably not, and I tend to agree with him.

A successful picture is a complex balance of many, often competing, dimensions. Yes, a subject is usually important, but there is the overall visual design, the composition, the feeling, the processing, even the context.

Presenting a badly designed image of a great subject usually doesn’t work well. Maybe in a photojournalism context, if the subject is truly unique it would be considered a strong image. But as a normal visual image, no.

It’s that balance thing. All the parts have to be strong.

It all works together

A well composed image of nothing particular probably doesn’t work. Neither does a not well composed picture with a good subject. We’ve probably all experienced both.

Another statement from Ian Plant in that article is:

Once you learn to stop thinking of your subject as your subject, you instead start seeing your subject as an abstract compositional element, which is a necessary step for making compelling photos. You start to see your subject in terms of its shape, color, and luminosity value. Seeing shapes and learning how to arrange them effectively within the picture frame is of critical importance to successful composition.

So the subject is part of what you build a compelling image around. Everything else you have learned about composition have to be thought through. You know, the considerations of framing and leading lines and balance and contrast and emphasis and patterns and … it goes on. You can find a million videos on the internet with someone ready to give you the secrets of composition.

Viewer perception

Why doesn’t an interesting subject carry a picture by itself? For you, it might. You were there. The image invokes memories of the experience, or the subject is important to you. Not so for the viewer.

To the user, it is a picture. You have to give him a reason to keep looking at it. People are so inundated with imagery that they are going to move on in about 1/2 second unless you can grab them.

So, let’s say there is a picture you like of a heron. It was your first trip to Sanibel Island in Florida and you shot lots of bird pictures. It is significant to you. But put yourself in the place of your viewer. They see lots of heron pictures. What does this one have to offer to make them pause on it?

Is it a significant moment with the bird poised to catch a fish? Is the bird in an interesting pose? Does the lighting enhance the feeling? Have you brought something of the environment where the bird lives that is of interest? Does this tell an interesting story about the bird? A good image is more than just an interesting subject.

Your mileage may vary

Seems funny how most of my articles contain a disclaimer like “your mileage may vary”. Art is intensely subjective. There are no hard rules. There are only patterns that have been identified over time that seems to strongly influence people’s perceptions.

Ian is describing landscape photography. “Rules” may well be different for portraiture or photojournalism or other things. The fine art I do is a lot like landscapes. Sometimes it is straight landscapes. So his thoughts struck me as significant. As always, you do your own art according to what makes sense for you. Never let any so called authority tell you you can’t.

But listen to opinions of people who have a track record of doing good work. Don’t necessarily follow them, but listen, try it on, see if it fits before rejecting their advice.

Today’s image

This is a quick shot of a street scene in Paris. It is not a carefully planned set up shot. I was out for dinner with family when this grabbed me.

Quick or not, it passed the test of “I’ll think of a reason later“. The more I worked with this the more it went up in my estimation.

Why? It is a pretty standard tourist shot of Paris streets. Look at the things that help make it more. The curve of the street and sidewalk draws us into the scene, as does the diagonal line of light and color., as do the people walking into the scene on the right. The bicycles give movement and make it more alive. The light and color on the building draw us to the side of the street that has most of the interest. As you look along the lighted street, the people in the cafes each seem to have their own story and interest. They all seem to be enjoying the evening out and that is pleasant and inviting. The receding perspective of the buildings on the left also direct and guide us along the street and through the scene.

Conclusion

To me, there is a lot of interest to explore and reasons to keep moving around the image looking at things. A simple shot of a street at night blossomed into an interesting picture. It moved beyond a street scene and became a study of living in Paris.

Most all of that was instinctual, not planned. A (metaphorical) bell went off alerting me there was something here. I got in position and framed the shot quickly. I really didn’t want to hold up my group, and I didn’t.

It’s a fairly standard and common subject. Design improved it to something more special. Instinct helped me craft the interest. What do you think? Is it interesting? Am I kidding myself?