Test Your Gear

Other people’s reviews can assist you when making a purchase decision. But once you have your gear, you need to do your own testing.
Reading the manuals is only the first step of getting the most from your camera gear, you have to become familiar with how it actual works in practice. This means playing with it every chance you get. That’s right, play. Life should be enjoyable and photography in particular. Here, the value of play is getting to know your gear and making your interactions with it and its controls automatic.

You must test your gear for yourself so that you get to know all its idiosyncratic aspects. Make sure you test the following aspects:

  • What ISO setting becomes too noisy for your general shooting?
  • What ISO setting can you accept in a pinch?
  • At what shutter speed does the mirror slap produce the worse vibration?
  • For each lens, which apertures are most and least sharp?
  • For each lens, which focal lengths produce the most distortion?
  • What coverage does each of your flash units have and how do these correspond with your lenses?

The other thing to remember is that all equipment is subject to manufacturing tolerances. That means that your particular lens can vary significantly in performance from whatever lens a reviewer tested. This is also true of other gear than lenses.

Real familiarity with your own gear lets you fully exploit what it can do. Know yourself an know your gear.

Shoot Dirty

Clean images are not always what we want. So let’s dirty up your photography.
If you think back to analogue photography, we often made use of very grainy film, soft focus, blur or rough forms of printing to create a particular look. There is no reason not to do the same with digital.  There are lots of ways we can get down and dirty with digital photography. The obvious areas are in terms of resolution, lens, processing and printing.

We don’t always need to shoot at the highest of resolutions. Lower resolution images blown up larger than theory suggests will have their own look, their own structure. You can take this to a great extreme and blow up so large that the pixel structure becomes a core part of the work. Alternatively you can take it up to a lesser degree but still allow the low resolution to have an impact on how the image looks. Related to this would be to deliberately over compress the image when saving as a JPEG, or even repeatedly so, to exaggerate the aliasing artifacts that this produces.

It is a sad fact that lens and camera designers go to great lengths to create crisp, high contrast images and photographers often like to dirty this up. But it is true. Hence the popularity of the Lensbabies, cheap, plastic lenses in a bending mount so that you can get blurred images with your expensive dSLR. The reality is that the imperfect image looks more natural, more handcrafted than the production line perfection of standard lenses.

Once you get an image into Photoshop (or similar) there are so many things you can do to dirty up an image. You can add noise, blow out the highlights and block up the shadows, exaggerate the contrast, apply scratches and brush mark layers, the list goes on and on.

Lastly in output you have more options for dirtying the image up. You can print on the wrong sort of paper, print on cardboard or handmade paper. Once the print is made you can take to it with sandpaper or steelwool, scratch it, crumple it, walk on it, splash water on it, apply paint over it, partly burn it, commit all sorts of transgressions by normal photography standards.

Perfection and sterility is not always the best breeding ground for creativity. It may be time to get dirty.

Watch the Eye Line

Where people are looking in your images offers you another level of control.
We are very sensitive to where people are looking. Consider how disturbing it is when you are talking to someone and they look away from you. We are very keyed into people’s eyes and we can use this in our photography.

One of the things we can try to control with an image is how the viewer’s eyes travel around the image (we’ll cover this in a much longer article on the site soon). If you shoot people then where they are looking is very important. A subject looking straight at the camera can be very striking.

When the subject (or subjects) is not looking at the camera but elsewhere, the direction they are looking creates a major line in the image that the viewer will probably explore. You should exploit this. If the subject is looking straight out of the frame it makes a very definite statement. Sometimes this is what you want and sometimes it is not, so you need to be conscious of this in crafting your image. If it is a grab shot you may have little control beyond cropping or later darkroom or digital manipulations. If you are posing the shot then you have full control.

When the subject (or one of the subjects) is looking at another person or object within the image you create a relationship between the two. You can exploit this to build the message you wish to convey. We have probably all seen the movie poster (can’t remember the film) where the bride is looking at the groom but the groom is looking at someone else. We can be obvious (as in this example) or we can be subtler or more intriguing. Why is that person looking at that object that, on first glance, seems so unrelated? What is going on here?

Photography and art uses a visual language to communicate with the viewer. Make sure you are making full use of the language.

Stay Outside of Your Comfort Zone

Optimal growth and development occurs when you are outside your comfort zone.
The concept of a comfort zone is a useful one. Your comfort zone encompasses everything you already know, can do readily, people and places you know, and such. When we are within our comfort zone we are, as it goes, comfortable. It is a nice place to be, except when you are trying to develop.

Outside of your comfort zone is everything you do not feel comfortable doing, techniques you do not happily use, aesthetics you do not like, as well everything you do not already know, understand and have integrated into yourself.

If you are interested in growth and development, whether artistically, photographically, in business or in your personal life, you need to step outside of your comfort zone. By stepping outside our comfort zone we expose ourselves to new things, new ideas and new experiences and eventually we make them our own. This expands our comfort zone, which is what growth is about. You have pushed your own boundaries, expanding them in the process.

Now there is an interesting thing about comfort zones. Step too fact outside of it and you risk the ‘Oh my God, I can’t deal with this’ response. How far varies from person to person and time and situation and so you must know yourself. The OMG reaction sets you back, people retreat back into their comfort zone and sometimes don’t step out again for some time.

So what you want to do is get yourself out of your comfort zone as far as you can without provoking the OMG response. After you’ve been out there for a while you will find your zone has expanded and you can push further.

Photographically and artistically, our comfort zone includes the tools we regularly use, the techniques we use, the subject matter we like to shoot and the places we shoot. Pushing our envelope can be trying a new lens or filter, a new processing technique, using different software, shooting in a new way, tackling new subject matter (always been scared of shooting people, for example), trying some new ideas on composition or image design, etc.

Note that just because you bring an artistic style or technique within your comfort zone this doesn’t mean that you will necessarily like it or want to use it in your own work. What it means is that the blanket fear and hate of it will tone down and you’ll see it as a valid approach, just perhaps not for you, at least at the present.

The Value of Restriction to Our Photography and Art

Sometimes we are so overwhelmed by choice that we actually do nothing. There is a fix to this.
Choice is a wonderful thing, it is the freedom we crave and so many in the world do not have. Yet choice can be a double-edged sword, especially when it comes to creativity.

Whether we are a photographer or a digital artist, most of us are presented with so much choice. We have a range of lenses to use, and even a substantial choice of focal lengths with just one zoom lens, exposure options, processing techniques, subject matter and much more. This can be great. But if you are like me, there will be times when you are overwhelmed by this choice. Where do I go, what camera and lenses do I take, what tool will I use in Photoshop or Painter?

A way out of this dilemma is restriction. I don’t mean putting the handcuffs on, though if that makes you more creative, go for it. What I mean is to deliberately make the choice not to use all the options available to you. So pick one camera and one lens and go shoot the whole day with just that. Set one shutter speed and use that, no matter what the lighting. Or pick one process in your software and use that only for some time.

Restriction shifts your thinking into problem solving mode, forcing you to try things you might never have chosen to do before. It forces you to accept compromises you might not like, or to find a way around them. In fact the very restriction liberates your creativity. I will often put a short range zoom or single focal length lens on one camera and go out shooting for the day. Or I’ll apply one Photoshop technique to all the images I process in a day or week, to see where it takes me.

See for yourself if restriction sets you free.

FotoTip – A New Photo Genre

Cliches stand the test of time because they contain some underlying truth, and I’m facing one of those right now.
Time flies.

Who hasn’t felt the truth of that zinger, usually accompanied by a sense that something wasn’t accomplished on time.  Today I’m fortunate enough to savor the flip side … time has slipped by, I did accomplish something, and it really feels good.  I started writing these photo essays years ago, mainly as a way of releasing some of the pent up enthusiasm I have for photography.  The by product, I hoped, might be that others would not only pick up on my excitement, but become inspired about their own photography.  Guess what?  It worked.

I was leading an AmericanPHOTO Mentor Series trek last week in Lexington, KY (who’d have thought I’d move to Atlanta and then have photo travel take me back to my home state almost immediately!).  One of the participants, who I’d never met, came up and introduced himself.  He then proceeded to tell me how much he enjoyed reading my articles (now my blog) on photography, but he had a bone to pick.  “A blog implies you will be adding to it.  You’re not writing often enough”, he remarked.  My first thought, which sort of blurted out before I could pull it back was, “You read MY blog?”  Not cool for a published writer, even a self-published wanna be.  When I recovered, I had to agree with him and promise to be more diligent, though coming up with something original isn’t always easy and a lot of what I have to say other people have already penned, and with better grammar.

However, this morning I had an epiphany.  Seriously.  Lying there in bed staring up at my wife’s digital clock display on the ceiling (it happened at 5:58 am EST, but Cindy didn’t find about it until 6:03 when she heard me chuckle to myself).  For years, quite literally since people first noticed my photographs and graciously anointed me a professional photographer without knowing any better, I’ve been asked, “What kind of photographer are you?”  I never had a good answer.  Those of you who know the circuitous path I’ve followed (from medicine) with a camera understand why.  Suffice it to say, I didn’t have years of on the job experience shaping me into someone who knew what they did and why they worked with a camera.  I just realized that I wanted to pick up a camera everyday and sometimes I made a photograph that was pretty neat.  I quickly discovered that I couldn’t say “pretty neat” and get anyone to take my photographs seriously, so I stepped up to a better grade of adjective.  “I make photographs that are visually provocative.”  Use provocative and they know you’re a serious artist.

Photography by Mark Alberhasky

I garnished that thought over time (nothing makes you form your own ideas better than constantly having people ask a question for which you don’t have an answer) and came up with supporting verbiage to assemble a pseudo-statement about my work, but it never really seemed to ring true about where I knew my photographs came from, but couldn’t put into words.

But that was yesterday, well really before 5:58 am this morning.  Today it suddenly became clear.  What’s more, I’ve coined a new term (possibly a new genre) that fits me like a glove!  This morning I was thinking how I admired the fact that someone who captures the reality of the world in photographs has a great term they can use to describe what they do and who they “are”: photojournalism / photojournalist.  Then it dawned on me that the pictures of mine I love the most portray characteristics of the subject in a way that communicate the emotion I was feeling when I made the photograph.  I simply needed to create a new label for the type of photographer I am.

Not photojournalism.  Photoemotionalism.    Not photojournalist.  Photoemotionalist.

Photoemotionalism is a particular form of photography (the collecting of photons with an image rendering device, i.e. camera) that creates a rendering which communicates an emotional state or feeling.  Photoemotionalism is distinguished from other closely related branches of photography (documentary photography, landscape photography) by the qualities of:

  • subjectivity –  the situation implied by the images while having its origins in reality may be depicted in a manner that alters reality to achieve its intent, i.e. express a feeling, by means of digital manipulation or other creative mechanism
  • timelessness –  the images have meaning independent of the time or place in which they were taken
  • independence –  no narrative, either photographic or literary, is required in order for the viewer to interpret the work on an emotional or personal level

one who practices the art of communicating emotion by photographs, esp. in fine art prints or magazines

Remember you read it here first.  Mark Alberhasky / IMAGEMA

Now, what good is it to have a label and genre if you can’t back it up with a really neat (whoops, I did it again) picture.  Here is one of my latest photoemotionalistic works.  Doesn’t that just roll off your tongue?

This image of festive dancers in traditional Carnival costumes was taken in Puerto Rico.  It is a great example of what I’ve been rambling about.  I was there leading a class for the Nikon sponsored AmericanPHOTO Mentor Series, while performers danced in the strong midday sun.  At face value there was little sense of mystery, but the masks were quite dramatic.  I saw figures that were very surreal, and the challenge became crafting a shot appropriate to such an interpretation.  Creating a “dreamscape” would require motion and dizzying perspective, so I shot my Nikon D3 using a slow shutter speed from near ground level with the Nikkor 14-24 mm f/2.8 lens, intentionally framing away from horizontal.  The final result transcends the reality.  The colors are accentuated.  Any offending details (building signage, wires, etc) were removed because they would detract from the artistic intent.  The final image catapults the viewer to a place they’ve never been.  If you could see the pictures taken by other photographers present, you’d see that the non-photoemotionalistic shots are quite different, both in effect and content.  I like to think I made an image that captured how I felt about these figures (rather than just how they looked) and that it is uniquely different from all the other shots made that day.

Photoemotionalism.  You won’t find it in Wikipedia or by Google search.  Yet. **


**Note to readers … 48 hours after this blog entry, “photoemotionalism” became a searchable term on Google.

Learn to Break the Rules

ImageMaker photography tip number 6
Photography, along with other art forms, has so-called rules: rules of composition, color theory, and so on. Rather than being called rules, they really should be called principles.

Part of our growth as an artist is to know these principles. Study of composition: ideas of rhythm, mass, line, form, contrast, repetition and position is a core part of our education. Likewise color theory and ideas of symbolism is color are important. We all know of the rule of thirds, but there is benefit in knowing how this is merely a simplification of ideas of sacred geometry and the golden section. All these and more should be part of your study, not just in the beginning of your creative path, but throughout it as we all forget and we will also get more out of the study at various times as our thinking and visual vocabulary become more developed.

But none of these principles are, in fact, rules. There are famous photographs that break one or more of them. Main subject in the center, odd color choice, imprecise rhythm, all these and more have been used to create stunning images. Does this mean the rules are wrong? No. It means that, occasionally, breaking them makes for a stronger image. The trick is knowing when to break them.

The beginning photographer and artist violates them constantly, because they do not know better. The developing artist follows them slavishly, hoping they will make their work better, which it usually does. The master knows when the subject or their interpretation of it requires something different. Then the violation in itself becomes a tool. But you have to know the principles to know when you really must break them.

Practice is the key. Examine great images, yours or others, check the composition, analyse how it is constructed and how things are places, the color choices, etc. Practice and analysis is the key.

Reconsideration Is Good

ImageMaker photography tip number 5
For many of us there is such a rush to new creation of images that we do not reconsider our old ones.

Especially for those shooting digital, but even for film users, there is a perpetual focus on our latest images. We may do a lot of work on an image but then put it away as we move on to the latest work. We may also shoot so much that an individual image gets dismissed in comparison to more obviously strong images, and left untouched.

The history of photography has shown some photographers who, rather than doing this, develop a lifelong relationship with an image. They come back to it time and time again, re-evaluating, re-considering and re-working an image. Over time, such an image relationship builds an interesting document in its own right, your changing view of photography, of life and of this particular image.

We all grow and change as an image maker. Our technical skills hopefully grow, whether in the darkroom or on the computer, as well as at the camera. Our sense of aesthetics change as we look at more work, expand our sense of what is possible and grow to accept new visual possibilities.

All the above means that re-evaluating previous work is a great idea. The best image you will ever take may be sitting in your archives. It pays, every so often, to re-evaluate old work, to take the time and effort to go look though your previous work, both in its raw state (film or RAW file) and in its interpretation (prints or Photoshop file) and see just where you can take some of these images today. If nothing else the process will show you just how far you have come and even whether you have moved away from a very promising approach.

Re-consideration and perhaps re-work of an image can be very enlightening.

Get Flexible With Your Shooting

ImageMaker photography tip number 4
When you shoot off-tripod, just how flexible are you?

Shooting on tripod is for when you want to really work, carefully, a single position for a while. Shooting off tripod allows us huge freedom of movement, yet many of us do not make as much use of this as possible. Apart from photographers with mobility issues, the rest of us should be using this freedom to move around, up and down, bobbing and weaving like the best of boxers until we find the particular position to shoot from, shoot and then do the same exploration again.

Shooting off tripod is the freedom to move. Shoot verticals and horizontals (portrait and landscape orientation), squat down and slowly rise up to full height to see how altitude affects the shot, walk sideways, backwards and forwards, and rotate. Lie on the ground, climb on something, tilt the camera at odd angles, tilt up and down: fully explore your location.

Whether you shoot continuously while doing this or shoot rarely is up to you. Digital offers the freedom to decide with little cost what actually suits you. Shooting a lot as you explore allows you to latter reconsider and of course allows for the chance discovery later when using a big screen. Shooting less tends to force you to consider more and thus hopefully produce a better result. You can decide what suits you and even change from one to the other as the situation demands.

It doesn’t matter how you shoot, just try to fully exploit what you are doing.

Use a Tripod More

ImageMaker photography tip number 3
Most of us do not use a tripod anywhere near as often as we should. But this oversight is easy to correct.

Tripods have other benefits than just supporting the camera in very low light. They can help to make images sharper even at hand holdable shutter speeds, take some pressure off of your arms and aid with controlled motions, like panning.

One of the biggest benefits of using a tripod is that it slows your shooting down and allows you to setup a shot, step back and consider the camera in context with the scene and then shoot with consideration. The fact that you can lock the exact position and then consider, adjust, reconsider, and so on as much as you want gives you a huge benefit. Getting things right when you shoot gives you the best starting point for later work, again with careful consideration, on the computer.

I know many of us put ball heads on our tripods. I know I do. But there is also a lot of value in a two or ideally three-axis tilt pan head. This allows you to readily adjust the camera position and view one axis at a time.

Sometimes you have to slow down to be in the flow.