Arrowrock Photography: Blog en-us (C) Arrowrock Photography (Arrowrock Photography) Mon, 13 Mar 2017 05:44:00 GMT Mon, 13 Mar 2017 05:44:00 GMT Arrowrock Photography: Blog 80 120 WORKOUT SESSION: MOTION PICTURES Poe TooPoe Too

Have you ever used the video features of your camera? Not many of us still photographers do, even though we may make smartphone movies all the time. Why? Processing. Our little phones do all the heavy lifting for us.

Fortunately, that’s not the point of this assignment, which is motion. We don’t need to shoot video to display motion. Yes, we could punch the shutter release button 30 times per second ourselves, but we’d end up with a ton of still photographs along with carpal tunnel and painful blisters. That’s all video is - a huge stack of single frames displayed sequentially to trick us into seeing motion. But we can create "motion pictures" in many other ways, and sometimes even more creatively. Let’s explore some for this assignment.

By the way, if you want to shoot video for this assignment, by all means do so.

Suggesting motion with a single still photograph is easy; we do it all the time. Nearly all photographs include some kind of motion, sometimes obvious, other times subtle. Simply adjusting shutter speed is the simplest method of controlling the result. A fast shutter speed can trap a bird in flight or a baseball cracking off a bat. A slower speed might blur the background of a passing bicyclist as we pan to match his movement. An ultra-slow shutter with an ND filter can transform splashy waves into misty and mysterious zen calm. Camera and lens controls offer opportunity for more motion experiments than we’ve thought up yet.

Motion is relative. A speeding bullet and the passage of a shadow outside are on opposite ends of our normal motion spectrum. Both can be captured by our cameras with a little technical know-how and an application of patience. Adding a flash expands time; timelapse compresses it. Secrets of motion are revealed in each case.

Nothing we see through a viewfinder is really still. Matter is a 99.9999%* empty stage for atomic particlewaves to weave and bob their hypnotic quantum dance for our eyes. Light traveling at 186k mps bounces off surfaces and crashes into literally everything as it illuminates an apple, Fido, and that ridiculous lawyer billboard in the background. Is there any such thing as still photography?

Motion can be introspective, reflecting the photographer’s inner state. An agitated spirit will produce a different vision than one in a contemplative state. A photograph might “move” me, lifting me out of myself into another’s skin. One photograph may attract one person and repel another. Our inner sea may reflect our environment, as if walking with a happy crowd of people on a city street; or it may be out of sync, riding in the back of a temperature controlled limo listening to classical music as a riot wreaks havoc outside. And vice versa.

Motion might be abstracted - the tilt of a font, a bold color, a delicate gesture. A knowing wink may signal movement toward a shared secret, a glare may telegraph hostile intent. A line or a shape might trigger a memory way way back before we knew its name.

The most demanding and rewarding motion picture might employ e-motion. The etymology of emotion is from the Latin e- +movere = to move. If you wanna feel this assignment, you gotta move.

I have a notion that we live in an ocean of motion. Don't need no potion for devotion to motion.

We’ll shoot MOTION PICTURES for the next two weeks, from March 13 through March 26. You can wear a black beret and use a director’s chair if it makes you feel better. And as director, you get to interpret your motion picture any way you want.

Happy shooting!


*Approximately 0.0000000000000000000042 percent of the universe is matter, which means approximately 99.9999999999999999999952 percent of the universe is EMPTY space.


  • If you'd like to share in these workouts with other people (always a great idea), you're invited to join my Facebook Photo Assignment group where you can post images and comments, learn from others, and help other budding photographers learn our amazing craft. 
  • If you're interested in bettering your Photoshop and Lightroom skills, I have an aptly named second Facebook group called Circle of Confusion. You're invited to join it, as well, but you'll need to be a Photo Assignment member first. Join both and you're good to go.
]]> (Arrowrock Photography) aperture assignment camera digital exercise light motion photography photoshop shutter speed vision Mon, 13 Mar 2017 05:42:01 GMT


Who is Klee Shay? 

Klee Shay is a fun-loving person whose actions speaks louder than words, doesn't judge books by their covers, is better safe than sorry, doesn't cry over spilled milk, and is dressed to kill. Make no mistake, Klee wouldn't be caught dead using hackneyed phrases, but needless to say, turns a blind eye when there's profit to be made.

Klee likes doing things for their own sake, especially if they've already been done to death.

And so on.

In other words, Klee Shay loves cliche.

You see where this is going... and yes, you'd be right.

We're going to spend two weeks exploring cliche, but not to root it out of our work. Not directly, leastwise. We'll do just the opposite - shoot every cliche in the book and have a smacking good time of it in the process.

Much of our photographic journey entails uprooting poor habits in search of real skill and truthful expression - and it's time well spent. Still, we can fall into traps along the way - traps of style, rules, competition, shortcuts, over-reliance on plugins. We eddie off into whirlpools that move fast but take us round in circles. We may get too comfortable and before long, cliche starts creeping in to our workflow. Our photos may have never looked better, but they don't move, disturb, excite, or penetrate anymore. Maybe they're too technically perfect. 

How do we know what's cliche and what's "art?" Loaded question, that. For me, it would be getting too friendly with a technique and no longer experimenting along the wild edges of the unknown. For you, it will be something else. What pushes your cliche buttons?

It's been said (and it's on the cliche lists) that the best way to fight fire is with fire. So let's apply that logic to our photography by creating a list of common photographic cliches and purposely shooting them. That should punch some good holes in our egos! For a couple weeks we'll stop taking ourselves too seriously, or seriously at all, and get out there to digitize as many cliches as we can. We're leaping off the gerbil wheel of perfection and into the meadow choked with flowers, weeds, gopher holes, red foxes, garden snakes, tree roots, and compost. And cliches. 

Let's start with a short sample list of photography cliches. Cliches come and go, but there's always a list. What was fashionable 30 years ago is cliche now, but may be fashionable again in 10 more. Who knows? So let's have fun with them

To wit:

  • Obnoxious watermarks
  • Over-saturated HDR
  • Batman Tilt (Dutch Angle)
  • Spot color
  • Selfies
  • Significant other in front of a landmark
  • Heavy black or white vignettes
  • Text overlaid on a photo
  • Bokeh
  • Signature watermarks
  • Fake lens flare (extra points if a bride is in the shot)
  • Every sunset ever
  • Homeless or street people
  • Safari animals
  • Flowers
  • Meme templates
  • 500px
  • National park "shoot here" locations
  • Cheesy filters
  • High key
  • Low key
  • Stock photos on white backgrounds
  • Optical illusions
  • Colored borders
  • Blurred waterfalls
  • Upside down reflections 

Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! Man, is there anything I shoot that isn't a cliche? At least I won't have any trouble finding photos to post.

Here's the ironic side effect of purposefully shooting cliches. By the end of our assignment, I'll predict that we are shooting less cliche and pushing boundaries more.

To make this more fun, let's work under a shared alias. Let's call our alias Klee Shay. Post a photo with the tagline "photo by Klee Shay" and see how many people get it. 

Klee Shay will run for two weeks, from Feb 27 through Mar 12. Happy shooting!

"Leap into the boundless and make it your home!" - Chuang-Tzu


  • If you'd like to share in these workouts with other people (always a great idea), you're invited to join my Facebook Photo Assignment group where you can post images and comments, learn from others, and help other budding photographers learn our amazing craft. 
  • If you're interested in bettering your Photoshop and Lightroom skills, I have an aptly named second Facebook group called Circle of Confusion. You're invited to join it, as well, but you'll need to be a Photo Assignment member first. Join both and you're good to go.
  • Need some hands-on training? I teach several classes during the year through Sawtooth Photo Pros. Current class schedule is available here: SPP-CLASSES


]]> (Arrowrock Photography) aperture art assignment camera color composition creativity exercise exposure light photography picture shutter theory training Mon, 27 Feb 2017 08:13:13 GMT
WORKOUT SESSION: THE INNER SEA wincar-62165wincar-62165

When I grew up, loosely speaking, common wisdom stated that we use only 10% of our brains, as if 90% of our gray matter has nothing more to do than absorb unfortunate amounts of alcohol, zone out on reality tv, or think about the 3 million ways to avoid balancing the checkbook. Nowadays, in more enlightened times (in loose-speak), it's understood that we do indeed use 100% of our brains. Hooray for scientific progress. However, only 2% of the aforementioned brain is "awake" at any given time, and under our control. The 2% bit thrives on logic and behaves like the tiny rudder aft of the USS Enterprise. Or the Titanic. The other 98% of our humming gray cells is not the ship, but the iceberg, barely acknowledged in our culture. There's a lot of spooky action in the distance between 2 and 98, the stuff of dreams, art, music, novels, imagination, quantum entanglement, creation itself. 

It's not such unfamiliar territory for us though. Remember the scene in Jules Verne's 'Journey to the Center of the Earth' in which the intrepid explorers descend into an Icelandic volcano and stumble across an inner sea where there be giant mushrooms, refrigerator-sized insects, nonhistoric reptiles, thrills, chills, and complete artistic license? What do you think - metaphor perhaps, applications we can use here? Our own inner seas are too unvisited, unrecognized, increasingly unfamiliar. They desire our exploration; forays into the sanctum keep the waters fresh, vital and alive. So keep your backpacks well stocked as we drop into the volcano.

By the way, that 2% equates to about 2 tablespoons of brain matter, slightly less than one ounce. That's what we navigate our lives with. And we wonder why we crash into so many icebergs.

I watched a remarkable movie last week, from which some of the above statistics are borrowed. It's called InnSaei - the Sea Within, and it's high on my current recommendation list. If you have a Netflix account, give it 90 minutes of your time, and you'll be glad you did. It's a solid dose of the sort of analog reality that is rapidly eroding away to soul dust. We need it, and we need to share it.

InnSaei probes a single subject - intuition, how it was lost, and the critical need for its reintegration into our daily lives. The payoff is getting off the 2% dreadmill and back into the integrated 100% wholeness of artistic expression. Photography fits hand in glove with this approach as our images begin to draw not only from the technical and logical, but from the subjective and intuitive, as well. In this worldview, the power of stories, with all their weird twists, matter more than how sharp the photo is.

This can be murky stuff (until it isn't), so we'll start with an easy assignment. That is, it sounds easy, and may be child's play for some, a challenging effort for others. Unlike some assignments, however, this one needs to be practiced repeatedly rather than merely read and checked off. This is one assignment in which the work is its own reward.

So here it is, the 30/30 routine:

Pick a pleasing outdoor natural location where you can go and sit for 30 minutes, alone. If the weather is torturous, find an indoor location - but consider sitting outside even in inclement weather. You must leave any communication device in the car or at home. That means no cell phones, beepers, signal mirrors, or semaphore flags - nothing. And here's the tough one - you may NOT take a camera. You will be your own camera.

Then go sit. Get comfortable, breathe slowly, then watch, see, with detachment, without labeling. Become aware of everything in your visual and auditory range. Be fully in the moment, now. If... no, not if - when your 2% control center starts chattering at you and demanding immediate attention, treat it like a 2-year old and firmly state that this is your time and please remain silent for 30 minutes. Resume your vigil. Your mind will begin to slow down eventually, the chatter will recede, and you'll enter a contemplative state, perhaps unfamiliar, but peaceful and aware. It may take several attempts, but over time you'll experience short periods, perhaps just flashes, of super-awareness and intense concentration alternating with lengthening periods of no thought whatsoever. Don't push them, let them come and go.

If you start seeing things you'd like to photograph, acknowledge them, then let them go. Let nature surprise you; if she trusts you she will bring you visual gifts. Accept them, then let them go. You may end up with a full roll of not-photographs and each one will be perfect. The point is to be able to see potentially beautiful images and to purposely not desire them.

After 30 minutes, or whenever you feel like moving (whichever comes last), go to the car or your house and retrieve only your camera (remember, you must not have it already with you). Return to your outdoor location and let nature bring you her gifts once again. Photograph one, two, or maybe three of them. Or none. What she gives is enough so don't be greedy. 30 minutes, thank her, and go home in a state of simple grace.

If you do this several times during our two week assignment, you may very likely end up with a collection of photographs that differ significantly from your normal accumulation. Instead of looking for things 'out there' to shoot, you'll find that your quiet state of mind finds things 'in here' reflected in your outer world, not unlike a mirror. You recognize them because you've 'sean' them before. When you point a lens at something, it's reflecting in equal measure right back into your inner sea.


  • Watch InnSaei. 90 minutes. Just do it.
  • Do the 30/30 routine every day if you can - 30 minutes watching and being, without a camera / 30 minutes with a camera, quietly shooting. That's only 1 hour per day. 
  • As you sit, your attention will drift, especially at first, perhaps violently. Catch yourself, snap back to attention. Repeat as necessary. This exercise will slowly build the skill of intense concentration, like a muscle. The more you inhabit it, the easier it becomes to access at will.
  • Less is more, both in mental chatter and the number of photographs you bring home. Purposely do not shoot something now and then. Absorb it now, on the spot, then let it be.
  • Turn off your labelmaker. Study an object until it tells you something you can't translate or identify. Follow that rabbit trail.
  • You won't know if the 30/30 technique works unless you try it. If it doesn't, what have you lost except a few hours alone with nature? Could be worse. If it does work, your vision and connection with the world will begin to perceptibly change, and your photographs will too. 
  • Don't like sitting? Try walking instead. Same rules.
  • As you become accustomed to inhabiting the receptive mind, you won't need to power through a 30/30 routine every day. It might take 15/15 or 5/5, and eventually you can just call up this state of mind at will. But it takes practice - it's a muscle.

THE INNER SEA will run two weeks, from Feb 13 through Feb 26. Happy shooting!


  • If you'd like to share in these workouts with other people (always a great idea), you're invited to join my Facebook Photo Assignment group where you can post images and comments, learn from others, and help other budding photographers learn our amazing craft. 
  • If you're interested in bettering your Photoshop and Lightroom skills, I have an aptly named second Facebook group called Circle of Confusion. You're invited to join it, as well, but you'll need to be a Photo Assignment member first. Join both and you're good to go.
  • Need some hands-on training? I teach several classes during the year through Sawtooth Photo Pros. Current class schedule is available here: SPP-CLASSES
]]> (Arrowrock Photography) aperture art assignment camera color composition creativity exercise exposure light photography picture shutter theory training Mon, 13 Feb 2017 06:39:40 GMT
WORKOUT SESSION: PRIORITEASE KO Backgrounds- pattern28KO Backgrounds- pattern28Inside view of an antique combination lock of bank Mandiri in Jakarta, Indonesia With any endeavor, what steps do you take to get started? Figuring out what comes first - chicken, egg, or wok isn't always easy. 

Pants first, then shoes.

We've been revisiting back-to-basics themes for the past couple assignments. This one follows the same stream back up the canyon to the headwaters of creativity. Priorities matter, or so they say. Let's just see about that by twirling a certain dial on our cameras.

The one on top with the green thingy and a bunch of letters. More on that in a minute. But first a few words about priorities.

We prioritize with photography every day. There's the obvious first things first stuff like charged batteries, extra memory cards, and oh $%*&$% I forgot the tripod again. Priorities in the wrong order usually result in less than desirable consequences. We may want to make good photographs but if we set ISO too high, we get noise. Shutter speed too low, we get blur. Aperture too wide, Aunt Sally's elevated nose is out of focus.

Dear Aunt Sally is hard enough to please as it is, so nose focus is critical.

Although our cameras don't have an Aunt Sally mode, if we prioritize we may get lucky enough for her to not write us out of her will.

Ok, grab your camera and look at the mode dial on top (its usual location). You'll see AUTO in green, some letters, and maybe some hieroglyphics that make about as much sense as the etchings on the inside of the great pyramid. What mode is your dial set to now?

For this assignment, you can ignore everything on the dial except the following letters:

S (or Tv), A (or Av), and M.

Ignore the P - it's just AUTO on an ego trip. Let's say it stands for Politician (to make it easier to avoid).

That leaves us with SAM. SAM's first priority is to get us off AUTO almost permanently. If you've never shot with SAM before, she's about to become your best friend. And if you haven't shot in AUTO for years, jump in and help the new Sammies. SAM I am!

S (or Tv) is shutter priority mode. You set the shutter speed and the camera will figure out aperture for you, as well as ISO when needed. If you set a slower shutter speed in S mode, aperture will automatically stop down by an equal and opposite amount so that you get the same exposure.

A (or Av) is aperture priority mode. Same deal as before, except this time you set your desired aperture and the camera does the rest of the heavy lifting. Opening up aperture will automatically select a faster shutter speed to match exposure.

Both S and A are highly useful priority modes in changing light. If shutter speed is critical to your situation (a track meet, for example), dial up S and set a fast shutter speed to stop all motion. If aperture is more important (you want shallow depth of field), A mode is a great go-to.

[TIP: If your camera's ISO is set to auto, turn if OFF. Yes, there are good reasons for ISO AUTO, but treat them as exceptions and only turn it on when absolutely necessary.]

But wait... there's one more priority mode - M for Manual.

"Now wait a minute" I can hear some of you yelling in the back row - "M is not a priority mode!" And I'll shout back "It most certainly is" while dodging the tomatoes and bottles. I don't wear this poncho and catcher's mask for nothing.

M is a priority mode and here's why - M mode makes YOU the priority. M stands for MASTER, you see. It puts all exposure choices right back where they belong - under your own creative control instead of letting the machine guess at what it thinks is right. Which it often isn't, by the way. If it was right all the time, there would be no need for an Exposure Compensation button. One major downside of depending on S and A modes too much is that you'll be twiddling that EC button/dial all the time. Extra credit if you can figure out why.

M is the best priority mode of all. In M mode, you have to figure out shutter speed, aperture, and ISO independently with no help from the camera's AI. Changing one will have no effect on another. You look at the light meter, figure out whether you want to zero it out, shoot brighter at +1 (hey, snow is white again!) or go -1 to match the dark and moody nightly news. And you have to know, on the fly, which makes more sense to adjust - shutter speed, aperture, or ISO.

M mode has a downside too - it's harder. At first. You often have to tease the magic out of a meter reading to nail that perfect exposure. The meter is lazy, and will try to tell you everything is 18% gray and boring. You'll have to fight for the extremes where the exciting stuff lives. Don't like the meter's zero-centered exposure? Push or pull your settings until shadows lift or midtones fade to black. You rule your photographic world. Prioritease.

So... the assignment in a nutshell is this:

Shoot in each of the 3 priority modes, on purpose, for a specific reason. With each photo you post, state which priority mode you used and why. Stories are always welcome; share what you learn.


  • In A mode, shoot the same subject using every available aperture. What changes?
  • In S mode, shoot the same subject using every available shutter speed. What changes?
  • Each mode employs the double/half rule. What happens when you change a setting by 3 stops?
  • Bracket 3 exposures, with each one stop apart. How do they differ?
  • Change focusing modes (evaluative/matrix - center weight - spot) - do they affect your exposure meter readings?
  • What is high key? Low key? Try each on the same subject (it helps if the subject is very well lit).
  • Come up with a visual story, plan it out step by step, then shoot it.

PRIORITEASE will run for two weeks, from Jan 30 through Feb 12. Happy shooting!


  • If you'd like to share in these workouts with other people (always a great idea), you're invited to join my Facebook Photo Assignment group where you can post images and comments, learn from others, and help other budding photographers learn our amazing craft. 
  • If you're interested in bettering your Photoshop and Lightroom skills, I have an aptly named second Facebook group called Circle of Confusion. You're invited to join it, as well, but you'll need to be a Photo Assignment member first. Join both and you're good to go.
  • Need some hands-on training? I teach several classes during the year through Sawtooth Photo Pros. Current class schedule is available here: SPP-CLASSES
]]> (Arrowrock Photography) aperture art assignment camera color composition creativity exercise exposure light photography picture shutter theory training Mon, 30 Jan 2017 06:31:21 GMT

Last assignment, it was dark in the beginning. Then a light was switched on. Photographers sat up and took notice, raced out their cave doors to buy film, along with iguana eggs and yak milk, then scattered across the globe to record everything everywhere.

Right off the bat, one of them said, "It's all about the light" and the race was on. The faithful said "Ooooooh" and almost immediately started hairsplitting arguments about the nature and behavior of light - natural versus artificial light, incident versus reflected light, hard versus soft light and so on and so on. We've seen all the YouTube videos and read all the books, some of which were great, others meh, and a few with way too many footnotes. Our time on earth is short enough, so let's boil light down to some basic characteristics that matter to us today when we're pointing a lens at something. In fact, let's cover only one this time.

But before we get started with this assignment, let's do a couple "look versus see" experiments. Step right outside your door; we don't have to go far. Regardless of whether it's sunny or cloudy, take note of where the sun is (it will be the brightest part of the sky). We'll call this "incident light." Then look around and note everything you see - sky, hills, houses, trees, roads, snow, walls, grass, sagebrush, more snow, your dog pulling your niece across the beach, and so on, and snow. All these things are visible because of only one attribute of light - reflection. Wavelength is absorbed or rejected by the atomic structure of these objects and determines the color of "reflected light."

After your neighborhood object scan, do it one more time, paying attention to the angle of reflected light.

Light has a number of interesting characteristics - it travels at a fixed rate in a single direction and rapidly falls off in intensity. It bounces off surfaces at exactly the same angle of the strike. It refracts into colors through a prism and is absorbed and/or reflected depending on the elemental makeup of the reflective surface. A large light source casts a softer shadow than a small light source. Stuff like that.

So why start with angle? Understanding incident and reflected light angle helps us locate the sweet spot where light behaves most elegantly.

When we're asked to shoot a portrait of someone, for example, what do we consider first? Location, right? We find a beautiful or striking setting and plop our subject into it. We adjust some camera settings and fire away, maybe with natural light, or by adding some additional help. And results vary, don't they?

But what if we don't care about location? Instead, what if we place more value on what the light is actually doing, and find the one spot where it behaves elegantly, then set up the shot there instead? These spots are easily overlooked, but become apparent as we begin to understand how light behaves.

Let's say we've taken Matilda to the park for her senior photos. We find a lush grassy area with some tall dark trees in the background. Maybe even a natural shade line to have her step into. Matilda sits, poses, elbows in the grass - beautiful shot! We might open up our aperture wide and get some pretty bokeh to set her off. We're happy. We even used a reflector, just like the other 88 photographers in the same park that day. So we must be doing it right.

But since we've shot for location instead of light we failed to notice a drastic (and common) problem. Because of light's perfectly predictable angle of reflection, the incident light struck the grass, absorbed some of the green cast, and bounced it right back up into Matilda's neck and chin. Oops. Green skin. 

Matilda does not like her green skin.

So we take Matilda back to the park for a reshoot. But this time we don't care so much about location. Instead, we're looking for reflected light that complements her skin tones. We spy a light colored building nearby. It's in the park but lacks the lush grass we found earlier. We don't care. Filtered sunlight is bouncing off the wall at a 30 degree angle. We set Matilda up next to the wall in just the right spot (paying attention to the reflected angle) to catch the wall light, which is acting like an expensive and huge softbox. She turns slightly into the camera where the shadows are buttery soft and the incident sunlight makes the perfect backlight through her hair. Oh. What a difference.

This way of seeing doesn't just work for Matilda and her friends; it works for anything we shoot. By taking the time to do a 360 examination of the light, where it's coming from and its reflection angles, as well as the resulting colors, can make a huge difference in what we consider to be photo-worthy. Location is nice, but should take a backseat to angles of light reflection.

In a nutshell, the assignment is this - study the source of light, see everything it reflects from or passes through, ask how it mutates with each direction change, then use your knowledge of angle to create photographs based on light behavior rather than location. Sounds easy, right? If you're lucky, yes. But chances are it will take some retraining in how to see a scene. Remember, it's all about the light, not about the stuff that gets in its way.


  • Use a flashlight for a simple way to study the angle of reflection.
  • Bounce a light off a white piece of paper, a tan paper, a green paper, and a black paper. What happens to the reflected light with each?
  • Shoot a subject against a light wall, placing him closer and further from the wall. What happens to your exposure with each move? Is it predictable? (extra credit - look up the inverse square law)
  • Find the sweet spot of reflected light (usually the brightest, most reflective range).
  • Trace the path of light from the original light source to your eye. It may take several direction changes before it reaches you. How does the first reflected surface affect a secondary surface? A third?
  • Use a strobe or flash with your knowledge of angle - where would you predict the best placement of your flash should be? If you find it difficult to imagine, use a ball of string to line out the angles (like they do with bullet paths on CSI).
  • Measure the reflective luminance off a smooth surface. Do the same from a highly textured surface. What's the difference?

ATTENTION ANGLERS! will run from Jan 14 through Jan 29.

Happy shooting!


]]> (Arrowrock Photography) aperture art assignment camera color composition creativity exercise exposure light photography picture shutter theory training Mon, 16 Jan 2017 07:54:17 GMT
WORKOUT SESSION: BEGIN AGAIN _DJ61603-fb copy_DJ61603-fb copy In the beginning was nothing, not even a spark of light for photographers to point lenses at. What on earth did they do? Spend more time in the darkroom, fumbling around with primordial chemicals and coming up with arcane theories about what light would be like if they could only see it? Things like zone theory and the inverse law, for example. In their spare time they codified everything and often made a grand mess of it. Some of them got so good at it they left to create the IRS, insurance companies, and Applesoft. But that's another story.

So let's start over.

In the beginning was nothing. The Lightmaker said "let there be light... and it was good."

Close enough. We can work with this abridged version.

Note that our Lightmaker made no mention of bad or mediocre light - it was all good. Previously, Darkness had the run of the place since before time was invented, so imagine the shock and awe that light must have caused with her sweet entrance onto the Great Dance Floor.

One swoosh and a swirl and paparazzi were instantly legion.

But let's back up yet again. In our photographic mythology, light requires a source, so the Lightmaker created an orb, a sphere which emits electromagnetic radiation, some of which we call light. Let's call it Orb A. Or as we know it, the sun.

But light is useless without a receptor - someone or some thing to receive and appreciate its existence. Darkness wasn't about to stand up and applaud, being so rudely upstaged, so some other mechanism was required. The Lightmaker solved this dilemma by creating Orb B, the eyeball.

Now isn't that interesting - two orbs, the simplest shapes to exist. One orb to transmit, the other orb to receive, each requiring the other, and the result is constant astonishment.


At any rate, we now have a handy, simple equation.

oA + oB = astonishment

The astonishing part for me is basic - neither light nor eyeballs have any function on their own; each requires the other. But put them together and... wow. Fireworks.

Oh yeah, we were going to make this practical, weren't we? Here's how.

Let's start with the Orb we all know so well - the sun. And let's use our B orbs to register Orb A's emitted light, whether it's incident or reflected. Then, knowing that we are part of the primal creative equation, start making decisions about how to make light behave. This orb-to-orb transfer business gives us enormous creative power, once we get cameras in our hands. 

For this assignment, stay as simple as possible and dispel any notion of good or bad light. If light has no such inherent qualities, it's our own psychology that's providing them. Photograph light and its effects, but do so with a bright mind and a brilliant heart, as naturally as possible. If the light's "bad" figure out how to make it "good." The creative response and process is 100% internal. It's sort of like putting on glasses backwards, or standing on one's head, but understanding that light is as much internal as it is external can be the juice that turns a snapshot into a photograph.

If this allegory doesn't work for you, go back to your own roots. In the beginning was nothing. What happened next? 

2017 is a good year to explore light and its myriad secrets. It will be a fun ride. Today we start at the beginning. Again.

Ideas for BEGIN AGAIN:

  • Go out on a sunny day and find a subject to photograph, preferably a vegetable or mineral - something that won't move suddenly or talk back when you poke it with a stick. Photograph it without thinking. Then study it, look at the angle at which light strikes it. Locate and trace the shadow. Carefully photograph it again from many angles. The light hasn't changed, but each movement you make changes history (photographically speaking).
  • Go out on a cloudy day and repeat the exercise. What's changed? There's little or no shadow, for one. Photograph from many angles again. Compare these photos to your first set. Do they "feel" different? Where does that feeling come from?
  • Shoot the same subject at dawn, noon, and dusk. We already know the shadow will move, but something else is happening too. Do you know what it is, Mr. Jones?
  • Shoot before sunup and after sundown. There is still sufficient light but not from the sun. Where is it coming from? What is its quality? Why are we so mysteriously drawn to it? What does it say about us?
  • Isolate your subject by using only a spot of light. Shade everything else. Does it like being in the spotlight? Do you?
  • Shoot the sun directly (but be careful). Why is it so hard to get a good exposure? 
  • Instead of selecting a subject to photograph, select a variety of emotions to direct your inquiry. How does it affect what you visually frame in your viewfinder?

BEGIN AGAIN will run for two weeks, from Jan 2 through Jan 15.

Happy shooting!

]]> (Arrowrock Photography) aperture art assignment camera color composition creativity exercise exposure light photography picture shutter theory training Mon, 02 Jan 2017 07:00:00 GMT
WORKOUT SESSION: SEMIBREVE DC-6544DC-6544 It's music season, with lots of semiquavers, flagged flats, and accidentals rattling from car speakers and desktop radios. There's Leonard's major lift, Gruber's famous not-so-silent thirds, and Robert Burns' unforgettable "fair use" of an auld folke song.

But let's settle in on just one musical attribute today - the semibreve.

The semibreve is the musical notation for a whole note, the longest note now in common use. Anyone can sing or play a whole note, so it's very inclusive, safe and warm, and good for warding off all these frosty nights. Raise a glass and sing.

The week between Christmas and New Year's Day could be considered a semibreve, a time to take a deep breath before diving headlong back into the daily tempo of hemidemisemiquavers (otherwise known as 64th notes). This week is a good time to reflect, retrieve good memories, deeds, and successes, and to discard conflicts, miscues, and stumbles before considering new resolutions to break. The semibreve is our private period of wholeness.

Therefore, there's no official "assignment" except to be at ease, to consider the photographic journey we've taken the past 12 months, to share some unseen images if we're so inclined, and to tap our tuning forks to listen for the tones of 2017. It's a time to be wholly open to revisiting our best and worst photos from 2016, and to imagine what we'll create during the next 12 months. 

This assignment will be shorter than usual - less than a week - as the clock is reset for the new year. New Photo Assignments (as well as Circle of Confusion topics) will be posted on the first and third Mondays of each month, so they'll now both sync up. Look for them at approximately midnight every other Sunday night / Monday morning. And whenever possible, there will be a tighter link between PA and CoC topics.

2016 was the year of NIA, the ineffable, the inner landscape. 2017 will continue our upward journey but with renewed focus on practical matters too (not that the ineffable isn't practical, mind you). We may see more hands-on projects like Tinfoil Hat and extra events like Coffeetalkenwalks that everyone can participate in. And as usual, we'll throw down a few jazz notes just because we can.

Meanwhile, be semibreve. May all your notes be harmonious.

SEMIBREVE will run for five days, from Dec 28 until Sunday, Jan 1, 2017. 

]]> (Arrowrock Photography) aperture art assignment camera color composition creativity exercise exposure light photography picture shutter theory training Wed, 28 Dec 2016 07:00:00 GMT

It's December, and we've arrived at the gates of our own Bethlehem after a yearlong journey of inward-focusing photo assignments. There has been an underlying theme, you see, a reason for all of them. Remember ostranyenie, touched in the head, hidden, mumble tracks, memory leak, heavy light, or the one that whacked almost everybody - photosynthesis? The thread that held them all together, the map that led us here, is the ineffable, the unlabeled, the presence of the present. It's the "it" that's virtually impossible to put into words, yet we employ thousands of them in its pursuit. Aren't we an odd persevering lot?

When we're touched by the oneness of wonder, we know it, don't we? We feel connected, in tune, in awe of what is. But when we try to describe it to someone else, it never translates well, does it? It's ironic - wonder is a direct connection to All That Is and a uniquely private affair at the same time. It's like sticking a fork into an electrical socket - now that's a direct experience that can't be shared because you're paralyzed! Later, you could describe it to someone but they'd have zero clue until they did it themselves. No doubt that's why some kind, sharing genius invented the taser.

Lens People have a big advantage when it comes to sharing and spreading the sense of wonder. Photographs don't need words or explanations to directly transmit a feeling, a mood, a concept, a message without interference from one soul to another. Photographs bypass our addiction to language, especially our modern dialects so infected with misdirection, double entendre, propaganda, and dilution. A camera fully sees What Is, simply and without comment. Our goal is to see that same way - judgment free, witnessing each moment as a brand new act of creation, and to facilitate that awareness to someone else. The more we get out of our own way, the more the Way is revealed.

There is an apropos Latin phrase that sheds some light on our condition as we approach our annual season of reflection and renewal. It goes like this:

"Nascantur in admiratione."

Loosely translated, it becomes "Let them be born in wonder."

Doesn't that describe what we're seeking? We see it often in babies and young children as they discover something greater than themselves for the first time. And if we haven't killed off our own curiosity and openness, we occasionally experience such expansion in ourselves, too. But it needs constant care and feeding, and as we age it becomes easier to forget where we left the watering can.

To be born is to be willing to trust, love, and care - and wonder is the environment in which trust, love, and care thrive. Sounds like the perfect soil for photography, right? Do we trust what we see, love what we do, and care about the outcome? 

We are all too aware of how badly the world craves more wonder at the moment. Let's give birth to it with our cameras. Find it where it lives; let it lure us out of our own shadows into the light. As we temporarily turn off the medium of language - tv, radio, magazines, papers, internet - we will find wonder still beating beneath the noise. Wonder hasn't left us; it's we that wander. Be still, quiet, waiting, and relieved of the stress of thinking. Watch, observe, feel, and listen at rest. Then click the shutter as wonder sidles up behind you and kisses you on the cheek.

Merry Christmas, one and all. Unwrap your present of presence.

NASCANTUR IN ADMIRATIONE will run for two weeks, from Dec 14 through Dec 27.

]]> (Arrowrock Photography) aperture art assignment camera color composition creativity exercise exposure light photography picture shutter theory training Wed, 14 Dec 2016 07:00:00 GMT
WORKOUT SESSION: TINFOIL HAT Edit-1297-light breakfast_flat_3000Edit-1297-light breakfast_flat_3000DON JOHNSON 208-939-9397

Yay! It's play time! No more photosynthesis!! For now.

Nothing serious for the next couple weeks - we're going to channel our inner kindergärtner and do fun stuff. Complete with a nap at 3 pm (bring your own blanket), and a snack before recess. We'll track mud into the house, crayon the walls, get cookie crumbs in the sofa, and let the dog chase the cat when mom's not looking. 

But before you do anything else, get up, walk through your house and make sure you have a kitchen. Good? Alright. You never know.

A typical kitchen is a gold mine for photographers. It's full of props, light modifiers, things that go whir and knives to chop them all up with when things don't work out. Some kitchens, like ours, even have running water! I'll bet that would be awesome in the outhouse.

Since you're already in the kitchen, check to see if you can locate these three common articles. They'll come in handy later:

  • a roll of aluminum foil
  • a roll of wax paper
  • a roll of plastic wrap

If not, put them on your shopping list for tomorrow. We like happy families, so it's probably best to have your own private supply. We don't want to read in the paper about your significant other going nuclear when they find their tin foil wrapped around poor Fido, or worse, Baby Kate. See, there's a great reason to have your own.

That's just for starters. In addition, you get to use anything you find in your kitchen. For example, forks (useful for road decisions), spoons (which often run away with dishes), copper pots (excellent tripod weights), microwaves (dry your camera fast!), and a refrigerator to keep the wine bottles chilled. Partially empty wine bottles make excellent photographic still life models, especially in odd numbers like 3 or 7. Well, maybe not so still; they tend to move around a lot as they get lighter. 

There are only two rules for this assignment:

> Every shot you make for the next two weeks will require the use of at least one kitchen item. The item may or may not appear in the photo, but it must be utilized in the making of the photo.

> At least one of your photos needs to feature the use of aluminum foil, wax paper, or plastic wrap. [Photoshop filters that emulate these things don't count. You must use the real deal.]

Some things to do with foil wax paper, or plastic wrap:

  • Make a tinfoil hat, of course! Extra points if you wear it in public.
  • A crumpled foil or wax backdrop
  • A bright foil reflector or soft wax reflector
  • A foil funhouse mirror
  • A foil bokeh wall
  • Roll up a snoot (to limit direction of flash output)
  • Moody or hazy lens filters (use a full wax paper piece or cut a hole in the middle)
  • Paint on plastic wrap with a colored marker - shoot through it
  • Form figures and shapes with foil
  • Punch holes in foil and light from behind
  • Make a pinhole camera
  • Wrap a fish
  • Flag and limit light with Cinefoil (a versatile black foil)
  • Waterproof your camera by wrapping it in plastic (surprisingly often much better than expensive covers and wraps)
  • Wrap a tree, a car, a model (make sure she can breathe!)
  • Safety warning - wax paper is flammable so don't be stupid. Also, don't lay across train tracks. Or run with scissors.

And so on. The same logic, or lack thereof, applies to all kitchen items. If you haven't had enough photosynthesis, create a photo with a fork, leftover coffee grounds, and that tub of coconut oil on the upper shelf. You forgot you bought that, didn't you? Now we're talking. 

TINFOIL HAT will run for two weeks, from Nov 30 to Dec 13.

Happy shooting!



]]> (Arrowrock Photography) aperture art assignment camera color composition creativity exercise exposure light photography picture shutter theory training Wed, 30 Nov 2016 07:00:00 GMT


Wikepedia defines photosynthesis is a process used by plants and other organisms to convert light energy into chemical energy that can later be used to fuel the organisms' activities.

Phhht. We know that photosynthesis is really about photography - it has "photo" in it fer cryin' out loud.

But ok, maybe photosynthesis is a valid description of photography too. We do a lot of light energy conversion, do we not? Which fuels other activities, like lens purchases, pre-dawn bushwhacking, strobe setting, post processing, monitor calibration, happy hour, and of course our favorite, banging our heads on a table in frustration.

But there's more!

Synthesis is a powerful catalyst that can reveal new levels in a photograph. Synthesis is the "combination of ideas to form a theory or system" or "the process of combining objects or ideas into a complex whole." Well now, what a beautiful description of photography! It's what we do every time we lift a camera to our eye or develop an image in Lightroom. We are creating something new from a variety of raw materials.

That little word "combination" is important. Synthesis is not compromise; it doesn't require that something be thrown out or sacrificed in order to make a mediocre agreement. Instead, synthesis creates something "other" from its sources and that "other" is transformative, sometimes revolutionary.

Synthesis doesn't just happen; it requires things or ideas that differ from one other. Let's simplify and suggest that synthesis requires two opposing forces to create a third. Visual tone for example - black and white. Synthesis of the two, if perfectly balanced, results in neutral gray, or "Kodak 18%." OK, you could argue that neutral gray is compromise, not synthesis. But if unbalanced a bit, we get shades of gray, and we know how delicate and varied they can be. Nobody would call black and white photography a compromise; instead, a master of the zone system has the capacity to create powerful, emotive work by synthesizing highlights and shadows in just the right locations and amounts.

The color wheel is built upon the foundation of synthesis. Mix two primary colors and you get a secondary color (blue and yellow result in green). Mix a primary color with a secondary color and you get a tertiary color. Add black and you get a shade; white and you get a tint. And so on. It's why there are so many freaking colors and so hard to zero in on just the right one. Each new color has a mood, a feel, a magnetic attraction (or repulsion) that is more than the sum of its parts.

Mix a rectangle with a triangle and you get a nearly infinite number of "complex" shapes. Throw in a circle and the Taj Mahal happens. Or the female form. Or a 1963 Corvette.

Synthesis can be reverse-engineered, too. The most complex shapes, colors, tones, chords, or ideas can be broken back down into their original components. They can be reshuffled into new shapes, colors, tones, chords, or ideas. Musical synthesizers create new bleeps and blats with knobs and sliders. So does Photoshop. One hits the airwaves; the other, Instagram. 

What happens when you unleash synthesis into the atmosphere of ideas, cognition, emotion, creative art? Relationships, politics, religion, scientific discovery, family dynamics, or which socks to wear all stretch our boundaries of this that and the other thing. We rubber band our way through every day in our real lives, inventing new coping mechanisms, pushing artistic boundaries, daring to fail. We're not the same person today we were yesterday. And tomorrow? We'll photosynthesize it as we go.

So then, how can we apply synthesis to photography? Here are a few ideas. I know you'll come up with more and better ones.

  • Photograph something simple, then photograph its opposite. Think about what the opposite really is - maybe it's not what you first think. Put those two photographs side by side and study them for awhile. Be patient, wait for some idea to emerge - maybe just a thread - that taps the energy from both images. Use that energy to create a third. Don't think too much, just use that energy to play and create.
  • Think of synthesis as a triangle. The two bottom points are the opposing forces. The top point is the synthesis, the "new idea." Start at the top and work down into the opposing components. Is something revealed you didn't notice before? Make a photograph of each point.
  • Consider actual photosynthesis. The sun, a giant superheated yellow ball of screaming atoms emits invisible rays that strike the earth's soil, warming a tiny humble seed that a few weeks later blossoms into a giant yellow sunflower. How weird is that? Nowhere along the process could a sunflower be predicted. But it's here anyway, daring you not to believe it. So prepare to be constantly surprised with synthesis.
  • Butterflies. Same deal. Except even weirder.
  • Remember a dream. What didn't make sense? Dig into that part - it's probably the third point of the triangle and has something to tell you. It would make a pretty cool photograph, wouldn't it?
  • Run with scissors... no, don't do that. I didn't say that.
  • The yin/yang symbol is a brilliant symbol of synthesis. Two opposing halves create a new and unbroken whole, yet is in constant changing motion. A bit of the positive exists within the negative, and vice versa. Positive and negative space plays a similar role in a photograph. Create a photograph where the whole would fall apart if one element is removed.
  • Baseball is synthesis on a grand scale, and it has hot dogs and beer. Damn. Cubs win.

PHOTOSYNTHESIS will run for two weeks, from Nov 16 through Nov 29.

]]> (Arrowrock Photography) aperture art assignment camera color composition creativity exercise exposure light photography picture shutter theory training Wed, 16 Nov 2016 08:35:09 GMT

What are your top ten favorite songs of all time? Go ahead, write them down; I'll wait...
Got 'em? OK, how many have a main subject or character that's isolated in some way - a broken heart, can't find their way back home, doesn't fit in, better than everyone else, or just plain lonely? 
None? You live in a fantasy world.
All? You live in a fantasy world, but it's colorful.
Some? Maybe even most? You're perfectly healthy, realistic, have thick skin, and are fit for this world. Read on.
I'll go out on my familiar limb here and guess that the songs you love best tap directly into an isolation theme. Especially sad songs, but songs that walk on sunshine too. It's what makes them stand out. I'm so lonely I could cry, croons Hank. Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been. Elvis maintained a room in the Heartbreak Hotel. Major Tom is floating off into space. Lady Gaga was born this way. Bob knows no direction home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone. James feels good (he knew that he would). Strong characters and tales emerge from the jungle of guitars and keys and drums and demand singular attention. And we don't forget them.
A good photograph behaves the same way. A strong subject isolates itself from the background and takes control of the narrative. A dying leaf barely hangs on to an autumn twig and we feel for it. We can't not look at a pair of bright blue eyes and not fall in. A red balloon in a blue sky laughs all the way to the stratosphere before it bursts and says uh-oh.
When we really pay attention to what's in our camera viewfinders, we realize that unless we do something about it, it's 80% clutter. The 20% that's left is what we really want - that's where the story is, the life, the isolation. The rest can go away. But it takes work - first in the will to see the 20%, and second in forcing the camera to see the exact same 20%. Otherwise, our Nikons, Canons, Sonys, Pentaxes and Fujis see every stinking thing and nail it to the sensor with religious fervor. They excel at it and their advertisers even brag on it like it's a good thing. But the truth is that we must be mindful of not letting the 80% through the lens in the first place. In short, we need to be selfishly ruthless with our compositions. 
Why? There's only one story that matters at a time. We, as visual poets and minstrels, are called to isolate and extract that one story from all possible choices and paint only THAT on the sensor. It's an act of will, a learned skill, there is no pill.
So how do we do that? Here are some practical considerations:
  • Simplify the background. Clutter loves background undergrowth. Eliminate clutter by moving yourself, the camera, stuff, use a different lens... etc. Do whatever it takes to create a clean background for your main subject to dance in. No main actor likes to be upstaged by unnecessary understudies.
  • Place your subject carefully in the frame. Allow it space where it can attract the most attention - perhaps by light or focus. Remove everything that competes with your subject until you've removed too much. Then one at a time, start replacing your supporting actors.
  • Depth of field. DOF is one of the easiest ways to isolate a subject. With very shallow DOF, it doesn't matter how cluttered the background it - it will disappear into bokeh. But that brings up other issues, like tone and color. A subtle shift might make all the difference.
  • Light (intensity and direction). Maybe your subject would benefit from the spotlight approach. Or perhaps sidelighting sets it off from everything else. Or a gel to change hue. Backlight a bride. Wait for a cloud to pass or the sun to peek around a crag. It really is all about the light, so place it where you really want it. Don't settle.
  • Look for what doesn't fit and accentuate it. A nun on a skateboard, a tough guy crying, a red fox in white snow.
  • Spot color. Yes, spot color is a cheesy, bad cliche most of the time. Except when it's not.
  • Motion. Pan a fast moving subject with a slow shutter speed. Or freeze it with a fast shutter speed.
  • Point of view. Shoot from the ground up, or from high down. Upside down. Look behind you - it's Bigfoot. Darn, not fast enough - you missed him.
There are plenty of psychological considerations, as well. Shining a light inward to explore what isolates us can reveal plenty of creative photographic potential. It's an act of will more onerous than simply changing an f/stop, but arguably more rewarding too. 
How else can we ISOLATE? Hmmm. Here's one... when it's late, turn up the ISO. 
I SO LATE will run for two weeks, from November 2 through November 15. Happy shooting!
]]> (Arrowrock Photography) aperture art assignment camera color composition creativity exercise exposure light photography picture shutter theory training Wed, 02 Nov 2016 06:00:00 GMT

Winston Churchill said it first in a radio broadcast in October 1939: "It is a riddlewrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma..."
He was referring to Russian national interest (some things never change) but he might as well have been speaking about, oh, photography, don't you think?
Art, of which photography is a grafted and healthy branch, is all of those, with conundrum thrown in for good measure.
Why are we so drawn like moths to the flame of photography? I believe it's because we long to see - not just to grab a quick glance and stumble on to the next stimulus, but to really peer beneath the veil or through the hedgerow into the Source of All That Is. I want to know why things are the way they are, and how this streak of bright lightning across the horizon, red-eyed frog on a zen lily pad, or beautiful face gazing back at me could possibly even exist in the first place. We're usually fairly pragmatic when peering through the viewfinder, but tearing off the shipping label for the prize inside is what we're really after, ultimately. We love the dogged pursuit of our holy grail, and armed with DSLR and trusty tripod, we travail to the ends of the earth, ardent to the last breath.
If we choose not to take anything for granted, every photograph we take, regardless of subject or skill, is a fine riddle, a flatland of secret symbols struggling to break free, a wormhole through timeless time, and with each leap only half the distance to the great wall of understanding. A compelling photograph is magnetically hypnotic, beguiling us to step through its frame. A great photograph answers each question with two more, taking us even further in. The journey called "making photographs" lasts a lifetime, with countless stiles and abandoned castles to explore on the Way.
A photograph is a conundrum stuffed full of "hidden."
A photograph of a beautiful landscape may reveal unseen details upon close inspection. There's a deer just behind that stand of aspens, a fallen tree struck by lightning, evidence of pine beetle damage, a shaft of sunlight illuminating the damp forest floor. A photograph of a dear friend may expose something in her eyes you couldn't see yourself - fight, despair, clarity, determination, fear - even though you know her cancer has stamped her with an impending expiration date. A photograph of a spring leaf contains the blueprint of its inevitable autumn fall from the tree, a cloud carries within itself a raging river.
The hidden stuff of a good photograph is not the same as clutter or distraction. Clutter is just junk the lens gathers in and and splatters all over the sensor because it's got no place else to put it. Wouldn't it be nice if a camera came along with a virtual sorting conveyor belt - all the trash goes off to be recycled while the valuable stuff gets painted directly onto the sensor exactly where it should go. Someday, some misguided soul will invent such a device and we humans won't need to create art anymore. Let the machines do it. But I hope I'm long dead and gone before that happens.
We need a healthy dose of "hidden" in every area of our lives. Photography included. It's our fuel, our faith, the substance of things unseen. Every little bit is a clue that there's more to the picture than meets the eye. Every "hidden" is a key that fits in a lock someplace; our job is to find it. 
Of course, we strive to create photographs that are well conceived and composed, processed, and printed to their maximum potential. We feel especially good when we create that rare one free of clutter, sloppy vision, and cliche. But it's not enough. A real photograph should also channel something else, something from beyond the pixels, something we cannot give it. What we can do is open the door and invite it in.
  • Use another art form as a catalyst as you shoot - music is a highly effective one. Listen to different musical genres - how do they affect what and how you shoot?
  • Do the opposite - leave your cell phone and watch at home or in the car. Listen intently to everything around you as you shoot. Get lost in it.
  • Go to a nearby park and look for "hidden" items you may not have noticed before - animal tracks, litter, insect damage, fallen leaves, color variations. 
  • In your next portrait session, look for the brief moment when your subject's guard goes down. Capture what they normally keep hidden - it might be a micro-expression, body language, or an unexpected transition. 
  • Hide an object in a series of photographs. How long before someone notices?
  • Shoot several images using the same unifying concept or theme. Have the group guess what it is.
HIDDEN will run for two weeks, from October 19 through November 1. Happy shooting!
]]> (Arrowrock Photography) and black camera color composition hidden photography vision white Wed, 19 Oct 2016 06:00:00 GMT

Hold on, wait a minute - a photo assignment called "religion?" Have I not stirred up enough controversy lately?
Cinch your saddles; we're going for a spine-jarring ride to the high country today. We won't end up anywhere near where you expect. Might want to bring a couple canteens, some fresh jerky, and a snakebite kit. And a bedroll. And matches. We might be out overnight.
Here's how I define religion:
Religion is the shipping label on a box containing a birthday gift mailed to an intended recipient. The shipping label instructs the reader regarding point of origin and destination, but reveals no information about what's inside the box. The label might be no frills, handwritten and barely legible; or handsomely laser printed, inscribed with rich textures and tones - but it's still slapped on the outside of the box with no visibility to its contents. 
Religion requires a sender (the label writer), as well as interpreters of the label along the way (various brokers and delivery personnel), and of course, a recipient - in all, a rather large and varied congregation of people, each with a role to play. The sender may or may not know anyone along the shipping line, recipient included. The sender's job is to box the gift in newsprint or other filler, write on the label "Ship to Robin Starfish," and drop it off at the PO. The sender's job is done. If everyone else in the chain does their job - scanning, decoding, sorting, trucking, and dropping off at the doorstep - Robin Starfish receives the box, reads the label, and chooses to open it or not.
Faith is a different matter. Here's how I define faith:
Faith is the assumption that there is something in the box to which the label is affixed. Faith does not reveal what that something is any more than the label does, but faith assures everyone in the system that it must be valuable enough for someone to go through the effort of putting the gift in a box, and adhering the appropriate label and postage. Faith assumes that no one in their right mind would send someone an empty box, or a box containing a dead fish. It wouldn't be worth the time, effort, or expense. For the system to work, faith must permeate the whole system; it's the fuel that moves the mountains of mail. This kind of faith is not belief - believing one has no gift does not make it magically disappear from the box. 
Enlightenment is the box cutter, the piercing of the container holding the gift. Here's how I define enlightenment:
Enlightenment begins with the acceptance of and signing for the box from the shipper - slicing the tape from the box, digging through the layers of newsprint and bubble wrap, locating the gift, teasing it out, working the strings loose, and finally, lifting the lid. Enlightenment is Aha!, Direct Knowledge!, the Wow Moment!, the revelation of "____" that could not be imparted by even the most ardent label-maker. Enlightenment is "What a gift!" Reaction may range from what! to wonder, from exhilaration to shock, joy to tears - and is always gut-level real and immediate. 
Religion - faith - enlightenment.  An upwardly rising spiral to be rinsed and repeated.
Is this not precisely how a photographer is made?
Much of what passes for photography education (on the interwebs, at least) is shipping label stuff, how to get from one place to another. It's important and necessary information. You're not going to "get it" without the critical to-from instructions. But it's not "it," so don't get stuck there.
Ya gotta have faith, and know that it will support you, even when you, in isolation, believe it can't (belief has no power against faith). LOVE what you are trying to learn, relax into it, trust that you'll get there, wherever there is. Don't confuse faith with the goal; faith is the high octane that infuses the network and keeps your gift moving closer to your door (even if you don't know what it is yet).
When the aha light goes on, it may blaze into being suddenly, supernova style, or dawn may creep up over the horizon slowly, with cat paw stealth, while you're earnestly studying starfields in the other direction. When your own enlightenment arrives, you'll know it's the real thing because it will resonate like a bell and can never be unheard. You may even be on your knees in awe, wondering how you got there, with this precious gift in your hands.
Do the work - trust - see.
This is the religion of becoming a photographer. 
  • Do a thought experiment: Identify a "shipping label" that affects your life for better or worse. Who wrote the label? Are the instructions clear? Are they meant for you or someone else?
  • Do you have a mislabeled box that should be marked Return to Sender? Do it and photograph the result.
  • Stop naming or labeling the things you photograph. Instead, follow a feeling, mood, shape, color, sound, etc. to its destination and photograph that instead.
  • Open the door and accept your gift. Visualize it. Photograph the "aha" moment.
  • Shut off your internal chatter. Don't make your photograph until you "hear" silence.
  • When you experience a "Message Received" moment, stop and absorb it. Give it all your attention. Don't photograph it (you'll use it later).
  • Recognize the small "gifts" with equal gratitude - sometimes they matter more than the big ones. 
RELIGION will run for two weeks, from October 5 through October 18.
]]> (Arrowrock Photography) assignment camera creativity enlightenment exercise exposure faith photography religion workout Wed, 05 Oct 2016 06:00:00 GMT
WORKOUT SESSION: MEET KELVIN IBG_dj_120215-100IBG_dj_120215-100

I know this character who runs hot and cold, warm and gregarious one minute and cold as iced Alaska the next. He's a cool cat on a sizzling streak, a blues man with chili pepper licks. He dresses to the nines - emerald shoes, cerulean suit, tangerine tie, kaleidoscope eyes; his colors may complement or clash but are always bang on. He talks in symbols, rhymes in fractions, and glows in the dark. And those beguiling eyelashes.
His name is Kelvin.
You'd think with attributes like that, his name would be Rodrigo. Or Antony. Or even Richard (pronounced Ree-Shard). But nope, it's Kelvin.
Kelvin is Type A in the morning, Type B at beer o'clock, on the move, and rarely lives in the same location longer than breakfast. You might find him on the 3500 block on Sunset Strip (the seedy part) or dueling it out at 9800 Main at high noon in Tombstone, AZ. Kelvin hangs around galleries, art supply stores, and pro camera shops. He's a rapidfire talker, kind of a know-it-all, and can bore the socks off a sock puppet. But he does know his color theory.
Hold on... Kelvin just IM'd me. He noticed I was online talking about him. He can't stand that because, you know, he might be misquoted or something. "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" is his favorite song. It's even on his answering machine, like a sledgehammer upside the head. 
So pardon me, he wants to talk a bit. I'll record the conversation while you're waiting:
Kelvin: So you're trash-talking me again, then? You wanker. 
Me: Who, me? Would I do that?
K: Yeah, right? Like you know what I know. Not. 
M: Ok, then let me ask you this, genius. What's the big deal about cameras and color temperature? Why not just shoot WB Auto and let the camera figure it out?
K: Seriously? Let me explain so that even you can understand.
M: Alright. Thanks. I guess.
I erased the rest of the conversation because it went on for 40 minutes. Remember the sock puppet? That.
But here's the gist.
All color photos have to translate "temperature," or the color characteristics of visible light from infrared to ultraviolet, to something we can understand visually. Cameras have to deal with it first, and adjust ambient wavelength readings up or down until their little brains think it's comfortable to your eye, sort of like what you do with the furnace thermostat in your house. 68 degrees might be just right for you and too cold for your wife. Wife wins. The automatic features in a camera don't always get it right either, but that's what your white balance controls are trying to do.
Visible color temperature is measured on the Kelvin scale, pretty much the same way as Fahrenheit. Colors that read "warm," say reds and oranges, fall in the lower end of the K scale, down in the 3000 Kelvin (K) range. "Cool" temperatures, the blues and greens are up in the 7000 to 10000 K range. Overall color temperature is what gives a photograph its ambient feel, or mood. A "cool" blue river scene at dusk will feel more restful and serene than a "hot" fashion model in a red dress leaning against a pink Lamborghini, for example. [Fun fact: Ironically, we visually read the higher K numbers as "cooler" even though they are indeed "hotter." Go figure.].
Your camera comes with a dial for selecting "white balance" which is supposed to make white things look white. Our eye/brain system compensates automatically for a wide variety of lighting conditions, but a camera is much more basic. It's actually more accurate and truthful. So while a white dress lit by candlelight looks white to us, the camera will record the white dress as yellow. Auto White Balance kicks in and makes an internal adjustment to increase the ambient color temperature from say, 3000 K to 6000 K. In the "corrected" image, sure enough, the dress looks whiter. It's probably still not technically correct, however.
A camera's white balance selector has other options besides Auto, fortunately. You may have used some of the presets - tungsten, fluorescent, flash, sunny, cloudy. But we're going to ignore all of those for this assignment.
The white balance dial (or internal menu setting) has one marking with a K on it, and yes, it stands for Kelvin. Go there now. Why? Because chances are close to 100% you never have. Imagine the fun you'll have by setting a desired color temperature directly yourself. Set it to 3000 K and take some shots. Re-set it to 5500 K and take more shots. Set it to its highest value (perhaps 10000 K) and fire off one more series of shots. You should see a profound difference between each setting. One might look "accurate" while another looks "surreal." You can fine tune the K scale to either color correct an image or create an outlandish mood. It's your creative choice.
If you're catching on, you've probably figured out that there is a lot of room for subjectivity when dealing with color. And that's the point. Ask Van Gogh and Picasso to identify red and they'd probably end up in a spectacular paint-hurling bar fight that I'd pay to see. And neither would be "correct," of course. The purpose of this assignment is to relax the chains of color perfection and to enjoy playing with them for their own sake. Tell your critics that Kelvin said it was ok. 
So, if you want to make a bluesman blue, color temperature is the paintbrush you need. Set your white balance to K and krank the kontrols from krazy to kool.
Extra credit: If you shoot in raw, you can go one step better. You can change the color temperature of your photos after the fact because Lightroom and Photoshop have essentially the same color tools as your camera. In the Lightroom's Develop module, under Basic, slide the white balance Temp slider from one end to the other. You may notice that the scale is 1) reversed (cyan to yellow) and 2) incomplete (green to magenta appears under Tint); the tools are for correcting or compensating for color temperature, not setting it directly. 
Extra Extra  Credit: Color theory can be Alice's Rabbit Hole, endlessly fascinating and/or frustrating. There is a lot more to color theory than meets the colorblind eye. This assignment is not meant to take you there (we're not even scratching the surface of the surface), but if you'd like to take the red pill, I know a mad hatter named Leo... 
Some ideas for MEET KELVIN:
  • Adjust the K temperature in-camera, which will give the entire image a universal color cast. Try the lowest number, then increase in stages to the highest. How does the overall mood change?
  • Shoot an 18% gray card using different K settings. What happens?
  • Identify the "normal" Kelvin temperature range for the following: sunrise, noon, sunset, post-sunset, indoors under fluorescent lights, indoors under tungsten or LED lights.
  • Is outdoor noonday K different in summer than winter?
  • Google "Kelvin Color Temperature" for some great explanations and helpful charts for your explorations.
  • Don't forget to set your white balance selector to your desired default position (usually Auto) when you're done experimenting
Some sample previews for the upcoming Circle of Confusion sub-group:
  • In Lightroom, you can adjust color temperature for just part of the image. Make half the photo orange and the other blue using the gradient tool.
  • Use the Auto WB function in Lightroom to correct the color cast for each of your in-camera experiments. What happens to the K values for each? Try the eyedropper on the gray card. Any different?.
At some point, you'll start to predict what Kelvin temperature is best for a particular situation. You'll see light more like your camera and be able to adjust for it reliably. It can make for some weird overheard conversations like:
You: Hey, I found the best ambient 2750 K alleyway ever last night! Pure sodium vapor!
Them: Yeah? Where? Wanna meet there tonight? I'll bring my strobes and gel to 8000! Got some models?
And so on.
Happy shooting!
MEET KELVIN will run for two weeks, from September 21 through October 4.
]]> (Arrowrock Photography) aperture art assignment camera color theory composition creativity exercise exposure light photography picture shutter training Wed, 21 Sep 2016 06:00:00 GMT

Are you stuck in the mud, trapped in a box, riding a rut, numbed by routine? Do you feel heavy, legs won't move, ideas won't come? Do you think so little of yourself that can't take a leap? Is your head so high in the clouds that you don't even realize you may have squashed something important? Take a look down at your feet, figuratively speaking, and check out what you put on this morning.
You may be wearing CEMENT SHOES. The one-way kind that pull you down down down.
They come in all styles and sizes and descriptions:
* I'm not creative.
* I could never do that.
* It's too hard.
* I don't understand.
* I am so misunderstood.
* He/she is better than me.
* All my photos look the same.
* I can't concentrate.
* I'll do it later.
* I'm great at landscapes but photographing people scares the poop out of me.
* I'm not smart enough for this.
* My photos will never get a ribbon.
* I don't need to learn technique, color theory, or artful composition because I am an intuitive photographer.
* I'm afraid of ____________.
* I'd better not say anything because they'll think I'm stupid.
* I shouldn't have come here.
* Squirrel!
* It's already been done a million times so why bother?
* My family says I'm freaking amazing. How come my photos never get any likes?
* I don't want to attract attention.
* Why am I standing here yet again at the edge of this canyon, shooting the same scene with 80 other photographers?
* Who am I?
* When is recess?
* And so on.
Sound familiar? The CEMENT SHOE list is endless, and we all have one. Call them excuses, failings, insecurities, shortcomings, fears - the thesaurus is filled with negatively charged word forms that attach to our minds like leeches and are as tough to shake off. What's worse, even the positive cliches, sayings, memes, and self-help posters don't help either - in fact they are often a doubly negative reinforcing set of CEMENT SHOES themselves, albeit wrapped in prettier, cheap paper. While they may fit someone else, like the creator making money off them, they chafe on us. So for this assignment, we're going to open our closets, yank out CEMENT SHOES of all kinds, and haul them off to the dump. They're not even worth recycling.
We'll go barefoot for this assignment - shoeless - so you can feel the mud between your toes. Real earth, building authentic calluses. Later, when it comes time to replenish your closet with quality footwear, it will be with models you've carefully handcrafted yourself. You'll end up with only a few pair - sturdy shoes for technical work, fancy shoes for creative dancing, runners for long range goals, and a pair of size 22 self-inflating clown shoes to keep it real.
It's easy to collect CEMENT SHOES and to fill our mental closets to bursting with them. What we don't buy on our own, we accept from others out of politeness or worse. Peer pressure, social expectations, envy, greed, and fear are all excellent sources of CEMENT SHOES. But all of them are useless, dead weight.
So how do we get rid of our CEMENT SHOES ? One at a time, with a hammer and chisel, doing the work of chipping off the clunky bits until at last they split apart and fall away. Hello feet! Let's dance.
Whatever you do, don't put the broken bits back on your feet or in the closet. They have a nasty tendency to come back together while we sleep. For now, stay barefoot and run free.
This assignment is easy. Here's how to step out of your CEMENT SHOES :
* Make a list of your personal cement shoes - maybe use the above list as a starting point. Don't think; just start writing them down. Once your pen starts to move, the hardest part is knowing when to stop.
* Pick ONE item from your list, for example "I'll do it later." Defeat it by attacking it NOW. "It's too hard." Break the impossible task into small steps and do the first step NOW. "I don't want to attract attention." Attract attention NOW - on purpose - and be prepared for a positive response.
* For every item you pick from your list, do the opposite. You want liberation? This is the key.
* Believe. Repeat. Do the work.
CEMENT SHOES will run for two weeks, from September 7 through September 20. Happy shooting!
]]> (Arrowrock Photography) aperture art assignment camera composition creativity exercise exposure light photography picture shutter training Wed, 07 Sep 2016 06:00:00 GMT

Rarely a week goes by without another coined word being added to the English Mirriam-Webster lexicon. Only this year we've learned zika, pokemoning, cancerversary, and facedesk. Then there's man-bun, culturati, and lamestream. And last week another hit the interwaves - one so good that we cannot not use it for our own nefarious photographic ends.
It's "over-exaggeration."
Not just exaggeration, mind you, but the next level, a step higher than high, the lofty peak upon which the Fool on the Hill holds court. 
You may already recognize it as the term Ryan Lochte, of Olympic infamy, used in place of what was formerly known as a baldfaced lie - or if we are being generous, a wild fish story. But no, he specifically tagged his robbed-with-gun-to-the-head tale as an "over-exaggeration" - and that has serious potential for us!
Translated to photospeak, this means we get to crank dials and wheels and levers and sliders all the way to eleven - and beyond - in our quest for garish, outlandish, fantastic, impossible-to-believe, way-out-of-the-box, socially unacceptable, technically inept, just-plain-wrong, overbearing, pretentious, cartoonish, and here's-mud-in-your-eye photographs - and get away with it! In other words, we won't care about our carefully designed artistic education - if we want to over-oversaturate, under-underexpose, un-unstraighten, cross-crossprocess, tran-transform, de-denoise, dis-distort, or encourage a feral cat with a fresh-caught de-feathered cherub in its mouth to prance across the keyboard while we're processing, no one, not even Matt Lauer, can stop us. No apologies!
There's a positive point to this exercise, believe it or not. It's simply this - if, or more likely, when you find yourself stuck in a rut or in a "should and shouldn't" frame of mind, some over-the-top play time is just what the doctor ordered. Push those sliders too far, lower a shutter speed beyond anything reasonable, shoot with no concern of what anyone might think. In a couple weeks we'll break out the brooms and dustpans and clean up after ourselves, but for now, kick out the jams, get your freak on, tell fish stories, and over-exaggerate!
When exactly is too much not enough? That's up to you to show us.
Some fuses for TOO MUCH IS NOT ENOUGH:
  • Don't think so much. Or think more - whichever is the opposite of what you normally do.
  • Shoot a whole session out of focus, on purpose. Look for hidden, dreamlike shapes and patterns. Follow that muse to the end. 
  • Over-saturate an image. A lot. Pour on the paint. Pour it over your own head and laugh like a kid. Splash it on someone else until they're laughing too. 
  • Take a cliche, like spot color, and take it further than you've ever gone before. The more ridiculous, the better.
  • Shoot crooked, tilted, upside down. Don't correct it.
  • Shoot a portrait with a 4-second exposure. Handheld. Process. Mat, frame, and hang on wall. Pretend you purchased it for $10k from a prestigious art gallery. Tell everyone else the same. Watch their reaction.
  • Don't understand Photoshop? Over-exaggerate and tell yourself that you do. Then randomly do stuff as if you're the world's greatest expert. Don't be at all concerned about results.
  • Use Lightroom's lens correction panel to distort rather than correct. Hint - it's stupidly fun.
  • Use PS CC's new facial tool in the Liquify filter. For ill effect.
  • Shoot with the "wrong" lens.
  • Still stuck? Take a break and go do something else for awhile. Bowling. Chukar hunting. Ballroom dancing. Tightrope walking. Shoe gazing. Movie marathon. Dentist. 
TOO MUCH IS NOT ENOUGH will run for two weeks, from August 24 through September 6.  Happy shooting!


]]> (Arrowrock Photography) aperture art assignment camera composition creativity exercise exposure light photography picture shutter training Wed, 24 Aug 2016 05:55:34 GMT

August, the dog days of the Northern Hemisphere. Hot, dry, humid, smoky, oppressive, languid - whatever the flavor, it's hot.
And the light is heavy.
From nine to six, it just sits there, big and bulky, shadowless and uninspiring, daring us to challenge it to a duel. But it's too hot, so we burrow into our air-conditioned dens to push paper or stare at light emitting diodes while post-processing some evening landscape photographs. To catch the so-called "good light" we venture out early and late for photo forays in the fringe hours. 
Meanwhile, light is light, and light doesn't know good from bad. It just is. It goes on expelling darkness just like it always does, unconcerned with human valuations. Light reveals, heals, it's meals on wheels, the spiel of zeal, the real deal. Light is the good guy, even at High Noon, starring Alice's brother Gary.
Let there be Light. And the Light was good.
If light is bad, heavy, flat, uninspiring, colorless, indistinct, unfocused... and so on... maybe light isn't the problem; perhaps it's our own perspective that's off kilter. We explain, define, parse, triangulate, and meter - and end up missing the point altogether.
We value light not in and of itself, but by its myriad effects - the length and shape of shadow, the coolness of azure in the sky or warmth of a beach sunset, the revelation of barnwood texture, stars reflected in a mirror lake, the redness of a ripe apple, the C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. We don't photograph light at all, but its consequences. We don't even know what light really is - particle or wave? It shouldn't even really exist, yet here it is, illuminating all that we are.
No man can see God's face and live.
Light has weightless weight. Light exerts pressureless pressure. Light crawls into nooks and crannies. Light flows over under sideways through. Light can bounce, reflect, refract, dissipate, cohere, perform magic tricks on a two-legged horse while balancing an entire ballet troupe on its sixth finger. Do you know just how lucky we are to be able to witness the effects of light? Is this not a miracle?
For the next two weeks, explore light and its eternal mysteries. Never take it for granted; light is a gift but is not a given. Pay attention to its source, physically and metaphysically (which matters more?). Light cannot be bottled or owned, yet lets us use it for good and evil. Light is like love, or gravity. Perhaps they are all the same thing.
Ideas for HEAVY LIGHT:
  • Shoot purposefully in broad, bright daylight. Hard, hot light is beautiful too.
  • At noon, shadows still exist! Look for subjects parallel to the ground. Shoot sideways.
  • Create compositions using hard shadows.
  • Shoot high key; shoot low key.
  • Practice exposing for backlit scenes (use your spot meter). 
  • Put a subject in shade and blow out bright highlights on purpose.
  • Shoot up (into the sun) or down (away from the sun) rather than horizontally (perpendicular to the sun).
  • Process in B&W for high contrast.
  • Shoot a silhouette.
  • Scrim your subject to soften the light.
  • Bounce light using a reflector.
  • Shoot through a prism.
HEAVY LIGHT will run for two weeks, from August 10 through August 23.
]]> (Arrowrock Photography) Assignment Photo camera creativity education exercise exposure lens light photography skills training workout Wed, 10 Aug 2016 06:39:54 GMT

The school bell rings for the last time and exhausted students race out the door into summer yelling at the top of their young lungs, excited about several weeks of play, daydreaming, riding bikes along forest trails looking for Bigfoot, building sand castles at the beach, reading Twain, Rowling, or Kipling in the tall grass out behind the back porch, fishing for bass in the neighborhood pond, or building a LEGO castle that fills the entire bedroom. Once home, they crash into the kitchen, cast off their backpacks, and reach for the cookie jar when mom casually announces they've been enrolled in soccer camp for the next 8 weeks. Up at 6 AM, home at 8 PM; this is serious stuff, junior, and that's the end of it, no arguments. So much for being a kid.
Everybody deserves - and needs - a break from routine once in awhile, even Photo Assignment members. When was our last one? Let's see, let me thumb back through the records... ah, maybe here... nope... this one looks like... uh, no... oh, definitely not that one... ok, so it appears we've never had a vacay. My bad. Alright, so it's time.
Let's call this one SCHOOL'S OUT. You get two weeks to relax, shoot what you like (or not), post process what and if the spirit leads you, and share whatever your heart desires with no pressure of any kind from our merciless Photo Assignment taskmaster. The key is to use your Photo Assignment time to relax, and not to fill it back up with the equivalent of soccer camp. Take long walks with the dog, tease a kitten with a laser pen, smell a rose, read that novel that's been sitting on the coffee table since Christmas, hand write someone a long letter, go to a movie, ride a horse, sit under a tree, follow Alice down the cooper hole, greet a stranger, do your own thing - as you would on vacation. Converse, meander, explore, absorb, unplug. If you have a camera with you, experiment with it freely; otherwise, observe things with your own eyes - the flight of geese, people crossing intersections, the way water flows around a boulder or traffic around an accident, an ant moving an egg sac to a new location. Feel them, enjoy them, love your few days upon this earth without the driving need to produce things like income or god forbid, great art. Just Be. Here. Now. 
Share your photos, thoughts, and experiences with us when it's relaxing and you're in the mood. Meanwhile, turn the noise off and go on walkabout.
SCHOOL'S OUT for two weeks, from July 27 to August 9. Recess!
]]> (Arrowrock Photography) Assignment Photo camera creativity education exercise exposure lens light photography skills training workout Wed, 27 Jul 2016 06:00:00 GMT
WORKOUT SESSION: MUMBLE TRACKS mumbletrack-1mumbletrack-1

In-a-gadda-da-vida honey doncha know that I love you.
Three hundred sixty five degrees burning down the house.
I am an American aquarium drinker I assassin down the avenue.
Say what?
All three of these hit song lyrics started out as MUMBLE TRACKS (bonus points if you know all three artists).
MUMBLE TRACKS are a musician's way of creating sonic space against an instrumental background for lyrics that haven't been written or finalized yet. Jeff Tweedy of Wilco describes it thus: "One of the primary ways I write lyrics is to sing and record vocal sounds without words, vowel and consonants that sound like language but don’t actually mean anything." [*A link to the full interview - fascinating reading - is posted at the end.] Later, he works those oral shapes to form the final lyrics. If you've listened to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, you'll hear it immediately and think he's either a mad genius or completely off his nut. Whether you're a Wilco fan or not, it's not hard to appreciate Tweedy's approach to creativity.
Because music and photography share much of the same language, MUMBLE TRACKS have equivalence in photography - the "sketch images" we fire off in pursuit of a theme, series, technique, or idea. We might be working on bettering ourselves at leading lines, for example. We go out with leading lines in mind and start framing them this way and that. After an hour or two, or a week or a year, we're seeing a little more deeply; leading lines show up where we hadn't previously noticed, in the cracks between cracks. Some are bright, others broken, a few inferred but informing the scene as if they were in plain view. They don't really make sense in terms of a finished photograph to hang in a gallery or over the couch in the living room, but each one subconsciously builds on others until bang - there it is - the image we'd been hunting for all along. We can thank our MUMBLE TRACKS for getting us to a lyrical image.
Another way to state this is "do the work"; we say that all the time around here. "Mumble tracks" sounds a little sexier though, so let's roll with it for the next couple weeks.
For some reason, many photographers treat MUMBLE TRACKS as mistakes, images to be deleted because they're not good enough. But not only are they important for development, they are the hidden, rich body that lifts the visible iceberg above the surface. Ask any working professional what his "hit rate" is, and if he's in an honest mood, he'll say the same as a beginner - about 10%, the same as the iceberg tip. It took eons of snow piling into compressed ice, inching down the glacial field over decades, and calving into the sea with a mighty roar. That's a lot of work for one iceberg to endure so that Bob and Molly on their cruise ship can snap a phone photo which they post immediately to Facebook before they head off to the buffet table, drink too much, and stumble off to be sick starboard gunwale.
This assignment is in support of our support images, the mumble tracks, the underwater portion of the iceberg. It's a place to do the work and get credit for that alone, not just the finished print. Art isn't a contest and creativity isn't a gift; it's all work and the work makes us worth something. Sometimes the work can be fun, and MUMBLE TRACKS are a way to make it so. As you collect them, post your progress and describe your changes from first to next. Maybe one will end up a masterpiece, but that's not the point. What matters is to re-translate 'mistakes' into 'my stakes' and to understand the evolution of icebergs.
  • Pick something and shoot it from every angle you can manage (left, right, above, below, in front, behind, inside, outside.
  • Shoot a series using the same subject. Take it with you into different environments.
  • Improve on a design element - leading lines, shapes, balance... pursue until something 'happens.'
  • Take a look at Edward Weston's 'Pepper No. 30." Why do you suppose it was called No. 30? What was he after? Pick up a few peppers from the market and try it yourself.
  • Shoot out of focus on purpose. And again with "wrong" shutter speeds. These tend to create "textures" that carry a mood or feeling. Can they be incorporated into another image?
  • Ignore standard exposure rules. Shoot high or low key - does it alter the mood?
  • Listen to music while shooting (in your home, or on a walk with earbuds). How does it change your perception? Does it focus you or is it distracting? Try a variety of music.
  • Put on some instrumental music (better yet, play it yourself) and make up your own lyrics. Use those words to inspire a photograph.
  • Shoot an action scene in burst mode. Study the differences between frames. Which ones mumble and which one emerges into a lyric?
  • Don't delete "bad" photos. Let them stick around long enough to review them. You took them for a reason which seemed good at the time - what was it?
  • If you're too serious about your work, lighten up once in awhile. Shoot careless and sloppy; allow room for surprise.
  • If you're too careless and sloppy about your work, tighten up. Dig in until you fix what's wrong.
  • Look up some musical terms - how do they apply to photography?
i smashed a camera
i wanna know why
to my eye, deciding
which lies have i been hiding
which echoes belong
-Jeff Tweedy, "Kamera", from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Sidenote: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot almost never saw the light of day. Their studio execs didn't like (or understand) it and asked them to revamp the album. Wilco held to their guns and eventually found support in another label (it took 2 years). The album went on to be their towering success, arguably one of the best albums released in the past 15 years (#1 on my list). It still tears me up every time I hear it. Moral: Duh.
MUMBLE TRACKS will run from July 13 through July 26.  

*Read the full Jeff Tweedy interview here.

]]> (Arrowrock Photography) assignment camera composition exercise photo Wed, 13 Jul 2016 07:00:26 GMT

What's the best way to learn the art of photography? Obviously, there's no single answer. If there is a character trait that applies to all photographers, it's insatiable curiosity, but the process of making photographs can differ greatly from person to person - from 8-lane superhighway to tortuous goat trail. We're not all built of the same stuff and we don't all want the same thing. Some are voracious readers and can absorb text like a sponge; others are visual and non-linear and can't sit still any longer than the 30 second setting on the shutter speed dial. Most of the world has gone digital but film and darkrooms still have stage time. Some shooters consider accuracy and sharpness to be holy grails; others use cameras to paint like Van Gogh.

One shooter's style may be another's worst nightmare. HDR, high key, B&W, street, fashion, sports, infrared... there's a long list of turn-ons and turn-offs to wade through to find your own way.

The photographic age has produced any number of masters along the way, from the pioneers who invented a new technology or world view to the new creatives who bend technique and vision to incredible extremes. Now, in our age of instant access, we have a window to them all. We have a varied educational menu to pick from - from expensive schools to online blogs, with fresh (and stale) information flowing at us in torrents. With a bit of effort, anyone can develop his or her own MASTER CLASS syllabus.

That's the easy part. Just because we have access to brilliance doesn't mean it will rub off on us every time we watch a YouTube tutorial or spend a few mornings with Creative Live or drool over the front page of 500px. We still need to do the work, get our hands dirty, dig deep, compost the soil, eradicate pests, prune bad habits, and water the little green buds (to butcher my favorite Being There analogy).

Who are the classiest photographers? It's a wide and widening field, but there is a common core. CLASSY MASTERS leave a vital legacy. They master the technical craft, then break new ground and struggle against status quo, exploring where no one has gone before. They are often misunderstood in their own time. A few make a fortune; most live purely for art. But every classy master I know is uncommonly curious and works his butt off to sail beyond, over the edge of the world, to create his own photographic Eden. Classy masters are not followers but challengers of convention. Ironically, as they develop their unique and visionary styles, they become the idols that the next wave looks to for inspiration and answers.

At some point in our own artistic journey, we come to a crossroads. We can take the easy way out and adopt a style or look that requires little or no sweat (presets, Instagram). Or we can choose to suffer and clamber up the goat trail, grappling with our own worst natures of laziness and instant gratification. The masters do that, one painful step at a time. If we do the same, will anyone know the difference? Sure, it's easier to cheat these days than ever because of the low cost of automated post processing. But bottom line, no amount of processing can repair a lazily executed idea or sloppy composition. The choice between copycat and master still exists (and always will). While there is a place for paved roads, plugins, and presets, the goat trail should always beckon. No one else carries your backpack. You take in only what you can pack out. You make the photographs that emerge in your own inner darkroom.

Our goal is to love and learn from classy masters all we can, but not be satisfied with the ragged translation to our own work. If we want to excel, an honest look in the artistic mirror should be the first priority every day. If we don't like what we see, we keep at it until we do.

Let's approach our assignment this way:

  1. Make a list of masters that matter to you. They may be photographers, painters, writers, musicians, or other role models.

  2. Choose one and dig into why he, she, or it matters. Is it the style, substance, message, color, emotion, etc. that moves you? What keeps you coming back?

  3. Do some online or library study of your chosen master. Find out what makes him or her tick; get under their skin. What new ground did they break? How did they do it? Now that you know, do you respect them more or less? How does it relate to what makes you tick?

  4. With a particular master in mind, go make some photographs. Try to channel them into your work; chances are high it will spark some new ideas. Pursue them. Allow yourself to fail. Delete freely. Recognize magic when it happens.

  5. Share your photos on Photo Assignment, but perhaps even more importantly, share what you've learned about a classy master with the rest of us. It might be just what someone else needs to hear right now. 

Here's a highly condensed list of CLASSY MASTERS that have mattered to me, and why. If you don't have any of your own, feel free to use them as a sparkplug. Listed in no particular order.

  • Richard Avedon - stunning personal b&w portraits, full of character and soul. And the lighting - wow!

  • Bill Cunningham - eccentric NY Times photographer (he died this week). There's a great documentary on Hulu.

  • Garry Winogrand - crazy cool street photography with the boldest composition ever.

  • Yousuf Karsh - powerful low-key b&w portraiture.

  • Jerry Uelsmann - master darkroom illusionist; he's largely responsible for me being a photographer at all.

  • Diane Arbus - her bravery scares the carp out of most people, for good reason. It was even too much for her.

  • Jay Maisel - bold color and minimalist design elements make for unforgettable images.

Clearly, two weeks of studying classy masters won't bring anyone anywhere near their level. But it should provide some fuel to our own inner fires and maybe give us a glimpse of some personal potential we didn't know was there. Photography is all about exploration, after all, and studying the masters is a powerful way to make the leap into the creative jungle with some healthy trail mix.

CLASSY MASTERS will run for two weeks, from June 29 through July 12.

Happy shooting!


]]> (Arrowrock Photography) Assignment Photo camera creativity education exercise exposure lens light masters photography skills training workout Wed, 29 Jun 2016 06:00:00 GMT