Today's photography has become too damn fast! Let me just get that monkey off my back right away. This blog post is for everyone, but mostly for those that are aspiring to up their photographic game plan. The advent of digital photography, while great in nearly every aspect I can think of, has done one thing wrong to a vast majority of today's shooters, and that is the plain and simple fact that they can now click click click away without a concern in the world as to wasting film or money. While that's all fine and good... what is their end result? Well, it is typically a ton of images that are out of focus, poorly composed, improperly exposed and most importantly... lacking the true feeling of an image worthy of being hung on the wall over the fireplace and enjoyed over a nice glass of wine... of course!
I belong to an online social group of world-wide fine-art black & white photographers, called "(en)Visionography", and I can assure you that these individuals, each and every one, does not rush a single image that he or she captures. This online community of photographic artists has become a great place for my inspiration to say the least. One of my friends in this community has inspired me to write on this topic - Jürgen Lechner, from across the pond and residing in Germany, is one of today's great artists behind the camera and in the darkroom. What he does is something that has long been forgotten by many, and not ever known by many others... Pinhole Photography (also known as Camera Obscura). What this is, is basically a box that is light-sealed with a tiny "pinhole" in the front that allows a very small amount of light to enter and expose an image on a single piece of film or photographic paper mounted on the back wall of the box itself. That's the basics; there are some others that are slightly more elaborate than that, but they all have just a tiny hole... no lens, no shutter speed settings, no auto focus, no "portrait" or "sports" mode... nothing! A pinhole camera is just that... a box with a pinhole in it. You can make one yourself out of a shoebox if you want; there are plenty of online resources to show you how. What is great about this type of photography is that it is slow and methodical.
Jürgen contacted me not long ago to help him make sure his bio was in proper translation from German to English and while I was proofing that I became inspired with his take on slowing things down and making his photography more about self reflection than about gun-sling style camera shooting that we see so often. Then I began to reflect on my own style of shooting and realized that this has been my motto as well for as long as I can remember and without even realizing it. While I don't do any Camera Obscura work, I shoot quite slowly still. In fact, many of you may have heard about what is called the "golden hour" of photography in which the best lighting of the day is one hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset and this is the best time, supposedly, for photography. Well, I despise it. Actually despise might be a bit harsh, but I will say that I don't like shooting during this time that often because of how rushed it makes me feel. "Holy cow.... the sun is setting! Hurry up and get this shot before the light disappears." Nope, that's not how I roll. It makes me too anxious to shoot during these times. Instead, I find other ways to shoot in the midday sun (or cloud) while avoiding harsh lighting situations or I embrace these harsh lighting situations and purposely shoot for a high contrast scene. The other thing I often do is to shoot at night when it is just the ambient urban light that is providing the exposure and does not change. This slow-down pace is why I have never even considered doing wedding or sports photography... it is way too rushed for my liking.
So how do I slow down, you ask? That's a great question. I have never really made a conscious decision to slow down because it is how I have always shot, actually. When I received my first camera at age 15 it was a Pentax K1000. It was the best camera my parents could have given me and they made the right choice in doing so. Sure, there were all kinds of fancy film cameras out there that had auto-focus, rapid speed film advancers, on camera flash, etc. But, I got the K1000, which is a stripped down light box with a lens, shutter control and a place to put 35mm film... that's it! And I loved it - still do actually! It was the absolute best thing that could have sparked my photographic vision as a beginning artist in the medium. I had to SLOW DOWN and make all the decisions about exposure, focus, depth-of-field, and even some really cool double-exposure stuff too. Really what it did was force me to "see light" and study how it reacts with what it's falling on. I'm not talking about how the light is reacting with the film (although that was also very important of course), but about how the light reacts with certain objects in different ways. It's really not something that can be taught and can only be learned over time with ongoing experience. Learning how light reacts with film and digital sensors can be taught, but light in its own environment has to be FELT emotionally and scientifically at the same time in order to understand it. This is not something that can be done in a hurry-up-and-take-the-damn-shot kind of gun slinging style at all... you must slow down!
The Pentax K1000 was the first thing that taught me to shoot slow and think about what it was I wanted to portray. The second thing, that I only started doing in my later years, is that I almost always shoot on a tripod. Even when my shutter speeds are plenty fast enough for hand holding, I like to be on the sticks as much as I can. It forces me to really focus on the proper composition and shutter/aperture combo for proper depth of field vs motion blur or motion freeze. Only after I have taken my time in all of that will I press the shutter release for the capture. While others are click click clicking away at the same subject HOPING for a usable image... I take only a few and KNOW I have multiple usable images. I know so much that the images will be usable that I have already post processed them in my mind before I even capture them. This can ONLY be done if you are shooting slowly! My final vision has been created before the light has even hit the sensor... let alone made it to the digital darkroom. I bet the click click clickers can't claim the same. Say that three times fast...
Lastly is actually firstly... I wanted to mention this part last so that it would be fresh on your mind after reading this long-ass blog post. The absolute most important thing that I do to keep things slow is to scout WITHOUT my camera. Yes, I scout the place I intend to shoot a day or two PRIOR to going there with my camera. If I don't have time to do that, I will at the very least spend a solid chunk of time after arriving at my location looking around and studying where I am and how the light is playing off of the subjects before I set-up my pixel creating equipment. This is a must and I will not accept no for an answer. The reason that scouting slows me down as opposed to the opposite as one might think is this: I now know what my shooting angles will be and am no longer in a hurry-up mode to capture images from one shooting angle and get on to the next. I can now SLOW DOWN and focus on only the angles and compositions I have in my vision that I acquired when scouting. In a way, it takes the pressure of time off my back and allows me to focus ONLY on my overall vision that I am out to achieve. This differs from attempting to gather my vision, find angles, create compositions, and capture the shot all at one time. My college professor was stunned years and years ago when we went out on a group shoot and everyone else went about the business of taking pictures and I just sat there. I felt embarrassed at first until she praised me for it in front of the entire class. She made a point of saying how important it is to study your subject with your eyes first and then through your lens second. To this day I take that motto with me everywhere I go, and I hope you will as well.
Always remember, just because it does not cost any money to press the shutter button a thousand times to capture your subject, does not mean that you should. Instead... TAKE IT SLOW, AND TAKE IT RIGHT!
I would like to say thanks to Jürgen Lechner for inspiring this post. Please take a few minutes to see his stunning work at the following links:
– Kevin Holliday