Traveling

An unexpected travel shot. It came from taking the time to stop and watch and wait.

I have been traveling more than usual this year. It gives me the opportunity to reflect on what I shoot and why. Perhaps it will trigger a response in you.

This is not a typical travel photography article. You won’t find the expected rules and checklists and how-to advice.

How I travel

Travel for me is a rather solitary activity. Being an introvert, I work best alone. Having people around who want to talk about what I am doing and “help” me find pictures is almost always a negative. My wife is occasionally along on these trips, but she has learned to get out of the way and leave me alone when I am shooting. Not always, but that is the norm. I don’t want to make it sound like I push her away, it is just that she knows me enough to recognize when I am in a zone and don’t want to talk.

When I am traveling with an option of doing photography I prefer to drive or be on foot in a large city. In either case I preserve the freedom of exploring, setting my own path, managing my time. I strongly prefer to explore out of the way, seldom seen sights, even if it means missing the main tourist attractions. Actually, especially if it means missing them.

As you can tell, if I have to take a tour, especially in a bus, I feel handcuffed, in prison, doomed to follow someone else’s agenda. I may see some interesting things, but there is seldom the chance to explore something as i would like.

What am I seeking

As I learn more about myself, I realize I can never restrict myself to certain subjects. I’m afraid I will never be that guy who is known for mountain landscapes, or still lives, or seascapes. I recognize that this is a disadvantage from the sense of marketing and branding. Too bad.

Of course there are certain subjects I am naturally drawn to. I like particular kinds of landscapes. The area that might be termed wabi sabe – simply things that age and weather with character – appeals to me. It is almost a given a given that I would check these things out. A joke with my wife and some close friends is that, if we see an old rusty truck, I will want to stop and photograph it. Like most humor, it is based in truth.

But in a more general sense, I have learned that what draws me is the chance to exercise my creativity. When I see an opportunity to bring a fresh perspective or a creative treatment to a subject, I go for it. It does not matter if it is an obscure something on a back road that nobody cares about. If I can visualize it fresh and make an interesting image, that is what I want.

This is one reason I seldom hang out at the iconic viewpoints that everybody seeks. I have no interest in shooting the same image that thousands of other photographers have made. Yes, I may shoot it for my memory, but I would seldom publish a photo like that.

How I approach subjects

This is pretty nebulous. I do not have a distinct process I have written down. I’m just trying to reconstruct my thought processes.

Basically I have an imaginary dialog with the subject. “Who are you?” “What is your story?” “How would you like to be seen?” I don’t really express these things verbally or even consciously. But this is a process I think I go through.

In effect, I am making a portrait of the subject. In a good portrait, the photographer tries to get to know the subject enough to recognize the key characteristics and the underlying personality of the person. This is what I try to do, even if I am shooting an old truck.

It sounds kind of silly to write it down, but it is how I work.

Environment

There are some powerful environmental conditions I have control of that have a strong influence on the outcome and productivity of my shooting. I have learned over time to manage these things.

A powerful one is to get off the freeway. I have seldom made an interesting image alongside a freeway. Cruising down that wide road at 75 mi/hr or more tunnel vision takes over. My focus is the road ahead and cars around me. The most wonderful scene I have ever imagined could be right there next to the road and, if I noticed it at all, I would probably convince myself it was not worth pulling off and falling behind in the traffic stream.

Another is sound. I find that listening to the radio gives a focus that distracts me from creative viewing. My car radio is often off all day. If I am driving at night I may turn it on to help keep me alert, but that is the only time.

Having mild ADHD tendencies, I find I cannot ignore words, either when someone is speaking or in music. When that stimulus is occupying me I tend to ignore a lot of things going on outside. And it is easy to get in a groove and be reluctant to stop to check out possible subjects.

And having a fixed agenda works against my creativity. If it is the middle of the afternoon and I know I have 250 miles to go before I stop, it becomes too easy to judge that this thing I just saw is not worthy of stopping and putting me behind schedule. Agendas can’t always be avoided, but I try.

Gear

Photographers tend to be obsessed with gear and the technical side of the art. Who doesn’t like a great camera and a selection of excellent lenses?

Sorry to disappoint, but I find I become less interested in that with time. The key thing is what you see and what you can do, not your gear. I seem to take less gear each outing.

On a 1 week road trip I just returned from, I took one body and I only shot with 1 lens – a 24-120 f/4. I had a couple of excellent lenses with me, but never attached them. The lens I used is surprisingly good and covers the range I normally shoot in. I like to become comfortable and familiar with what I am using so that once I have visualized what I want, I just pick up the camera and it is a quick and automatic process to capture my vision.

Actually the bulkiest equipment I brought was 2 tripods and a monopod. And I didn’t use 1 of the tripods. Next time I will probably not bring it or the other lenses I had with me.

Just me

I readily say these characteristics are peculiar to me. And I am peculiar. I am in no way suggesting you should do things this way.

Over time I have learned what works for me and what I did that increased the amount of images I like. Being an introvert makes it easier for me to reflect on things like this. I like to figure things out. You need to figure out what works for you and maximize it.

We each have our own unique characteristics and strengths and weaknesses. Learning who we are and what works for us is a big step toward improving our work. And being happier along the way.

Photographing the Unseen

Reality distortion through intentional camera motion

Photographing the unseen? That is impossible isn’t it? If you can’t see it, how could you take a picture of it?

Ostranenie

Osranenie is a concept. It is based on showing things in a new way, from a new point of view. I have written on this before and I want to circle back to give some practical applications. No, I still don’t know how to pronounce it.

Central to the concept is that the artist tries to force the reader or viewer outside of their normal state of perception. The goal is to make you break your normal habits and look at things different.

A unique ability of photography

Photography is uniquely suited to help see things outside of our normal perception. Other types of art, like painting, are generative. That is, you start with a blank canvas and what appears is what the artist envisions.

Photography is totally the opposite. It is basically subtractive. The camera captures everything in its field of view. It is up to the artist to be selective in framing and composing to restrict the image to what he wants to present.

That is well understood, but in addition, the camera settings and attachments allow exploration of states that we cannot perceive with our normal sight. Without any special tricks, my camera allows shutter speeds from 1/8000th of a second to 30 seconds. And the long exposures can be extended to any length I desire. I can also change lenses to give different perspectives on a scene.

Photography may be, at heart, a mechanical and technical based art, but that technology allows us to peek into the world in unique ways.

Camera vs eye

As humans, our marvelously designed eyes work in a totally different way than a camera. We constantly scan around and “snapshot” small slivers of our field of view. Our minds seamlessly stitch this constantly changing stream of images together, kind of a real time panorama. We don’t notice it happening. What we think we “see” is actually a model built from these scans and our interpretation of its meaning and our experience with similar subjects.

The camera has no built in biases. It just represents what it gathers in one exposure.

Time extremes

I have mentioned time as a variable of photography. But so what? How can that give us a new perception?

If I adjust my camera to take a frame at 1/8000th of a second, it does it. The result is a frozen slice of an instant that we cannot perceive with our normal vision. A cascade is a classic example. Shooting at a very short shutter speed freezes the motion of all the water and allows us to examine what is truly happening in an instant. All the complexity and the turbulence we cannot perceive.

On the other extreme, if I expose it for seconds, the water will blur into streaks that give an impression of the overall motion going on. We sort of understand that this is what it might look like over time, but we can’t actually see it unless we take a picture.

Here are a couple of (not very good) examples. Actually, I seldom use short shutter speeds on water so I had to go out to the local river and generate an illustration.

Water flowing at 1/400th second
Short shutter speed, 1/4000th second
Water flowing at 1/10th second
Long shutter speed, 1/10 second

In the first case, the water seems crystal-like, frozen. In the second case there is a distinct impression of motion and flow. The point in each case is that this is not what we actually see when we’re looking at the waterfall. Each is a bending of our perception, revealing new views on the world to us.

Space

Our cameras also have the ability to give us different perspectives on the space around us. Our eyes have a fixed focal length that is around 40-50mm equivalent for a 35mm camera. And we see the world in a horizontal format. But we can put a variety of lenses on our cameras to give views from extreme wide angle to extreme telephoto. And we can rotate our camera in different orientations.

We’re used to seeing our “normal” point of view – that’s why 50mm is called a “normal” lens. A wide angle stretches our view, Things converge in unexpected ways. Lines make distinct new compositions. Buildings “bend” in funny ways. It brings together much more width of view than we are used to seeing.

And the opposite, a telephoto lens, compresses our view. It narrows in on a small area, like when we look through binoculars. It gets us closer to something we would not normally be close to, such as a wild animal. And it lets the artist draw our attention to details of small parts of a scene.

Each of these effects is a distortion or exaggeration of our perception. It is not what we actually see, but it allows us to discern the world around us in new ways.

Motion

Our perception of motion is another effect the camera can record but that we perceive much different. Try an experiment: move your head rapidly from side to side. You don’t really notice much as your head is moving. As soon as you stop you have a clear view of the scene before your eyes. Our mind kind of “skips over” the motion.

Or try another experiment: stand beside a road and start straight ahead as cars go by. What do you notice? Something obscures your vision briefly, but we tend to ignore it. It’s more of a distraction to what we are watching.

The camera, though, sees all that passes in front of it. It doesn’t know to ignore some things as immaterial. I often use the technique knows as intentional camera movement (ICM) to achieve reality distortions to show the world in new ways. The image at the top of this article is such a motion capture. You know what the scene is, but you also know that you have never actually seen the world like that. It helps you think of it is a different way.

Color

Another thing we have excellent control of now is color. More or less, change the hue or saturation – it’s easy with our tools. These things could not have happened in early photography.

I feel the need to single out one significant category of color manipulation that we are very familiar with. Black & white. This is not the way we see the world. By presenting an image without color information, our perception is changed drastically. It keeps us from getting distracted by color and helps us to really look at the shapes and tones and forms in the scene.

We don’t produce a black & white print now because we are limited by the medium. A black & white print got there by the artist deliberately deciding to remove the color. We may not think of it this way, but black & white images are a deliberate distortion of our perception to help give us a new point of view. It is an alternate reality.

Bending reality

Photography has the ability to bend reality in many ways. That is one of the things I love about it. I am not ashamed of it. It is not cheating or an artifice. It is using our creativity to create art.

I think this quote expresses it well:

In our time it seems entirely appropriate that the widest choice be open to artists. Those using the camera or other photographic means to produce works of artistic merit should seek to exploit their medium in the most adventurous ways … The derogatory use of the term artifice is more often than not a bugaboo. Art is artifice. Its reality is of another nature than that of the purely physical world.

Aaron Scharf

A different perspective

I really appreciate that photography has abilities to give us different perspectives on the world. I am tending to push in these directions more and more in my work. Of course, artists in other media can do most of these things, but they would have to either have an amazing ability to visualize the unseen, or they would likely take a picture to show them the unknown and then paint it. Photographers do it directly.

Maybe it is stretch to call this bending of perception ostranenie, but I don’t think so. I doubt if the term will ever catch on. Probably a good thing, because then I would have to learn to pronounce it.

There are few actually new things in the world. The idea of ostranenie was penned in 1917 – 106 years ago as I write this. But I am happy that photography lets us push the boundaries into new visualizations of reality. It is a uniquely capable art form.

Let’s go out and shoot the unseen and impossible! Keep on bending! Get outside of normal perception.

Time

Sometimes the effect of time is significant

Time is common to all of us. We are all given the same amount of time each day. Most of us are not as aware of time flowing by as we are of the events we have scheduled at certain times. Rather than moaning about how busy we all are or talking about productivity, I would like to discuss time as a creative element.

What is time?

Time is the continued sequence of existence and events that occurs in an apparently irreversible succession from the past, through the present, into the future.” Deep, but it helps frame the problem.

We all “know” what time is, but we would probably have a difficult time describing or defining it. Yet it is what we live in. It controls almost every aspect of our lives. We all experience it constantly. We can’t control it or buy or sell it or save it. It flows on by with no regard to our desires.

It may be a cliche that we all have the same amount of time each day, but like most cliches, it is very true. We can’t control it, we just decide what we are going to do with it.

Most art deals with moments

Most art, and most photography, captures discrete moments in time. This is the conventional view of the world. It is what we think we see all the time. Don’t take it as me sounding critical of capturing moments. I do it all the time, too. It records an event or a place or a person at a certain moment, and that matches and triggers our memories.

In a sense, it is our way of freezing and controlling time. As photographers we usually think in terms of the best shutter speed to use to stop the action, to minimize blur. This is the right thing to do for normal image captures. We, and our viewers, expect the moment to be recorded in sharp detail with no distractions like blurred movement.

Photography is unique

Photography is unique in it’s ability to represent time in varying ways. Time is one of the variables of the photographic process.

If you are painting or sculpting you usually represent what you can see or imagine. We seem to see things still, not moving or traveling through time. And it is very hard to imagine what the movement of time looks like. We may be able to see the effects of years or centuries on something, but even then it is impossible to visualize what it looks like as it is happening.

But photography has time built in as one of the parameters being controlled. We balance aperture, shutter speed, and sensitivity (ISO) to determine an exposure. Think about that for a moment: we can adjust aperture and sensitivity to set the time window of an image to whatever we want. Within limits.

Yes, we usually use this to set the shutter speed fast enough to freeze the motion. But that is just the normal convention. We could just as well make the shutter speed very long to observe motion over time. Some photographers do this regularly to feather moving water. It is almost a convention of landscape images, sadly.

I know my friend Cole Thompson gravitates to very long exposures to give a different view of the world. Many of his images create very interesting effects.

Movement

I have recently found myself drawn to visualizing the passage of tiime.. More and more I tend to use relatively long exposures, often hand holding the camera, to examine the effects of movement over time. Some of my images done this way do not have a single sharp edge in them.

This may seem controversial to many photographers. We are trained to maximize sharpness. We buy very high resolution sensors and ultra sharp lenses to record the sharpest detail possible. But I use those great sensors and sharp lenses to record – blur. A waste? That is an artistic judgment.

One of the things I am trying to capture is the unseen way things move over time. We know they move. We can point to it and say “that is moving”. But it is nearly impossible to visualize what it really looks like as it moves. That is what I am exploring.

The image with this article sort of illustrated this idea. This is an event called Cowboy Mounted Shooting. It is a speed and shooting event at some of our local rodeos. I believe the blur and slow shutter speed capture the speed and dramatic action of the event better than a crisp, frozen frame. The sharpest focus is on the face of the horse. That seemed appropriate to me because one of the things I wondered about is how the horse felt about guns going off over his head.

A new viewpoint

This concept is a new viewpoint for me. Time exposures are certainly not new and I have done a lot of them over my career. Now, though, I am more consciously using time as a creative element. Instead of a limitation of low light I now see it an an opportunity to show a new view on the world. I am working on a series that emphasizes this. Maybe more on that later.

Time is too much of a subject to cover in depth in a blog post. It is a theme I will probably return to in the future.