The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography, by John Schaefer
November 28, 2023
Permalink | Tags: Film Photography, Photography, Book Reports
Several times over the past few years, I’ve checked out the first volume of John Schaefer’s The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography from my local library. I’m rewarded every time I do so.
When I first pulled that book off the library shelf in 2021, I had just begun my own journey into exploring photography more seriously. At the time, I was more interested in digital photography, so I glossed over much of the book’s content centered on film.
Published as a revised edition in 1999—the initial one came out in 1992, when film was all that was available—the book appeared at the dawn of the digital age. Some of the content in that revised edition touches upon digital photography, and in the year 2023 that content can seem rather quaint.
But beyond that triviality, Schaefer’s The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography has great value. The book has wonderfully in-depth coverage of an entire range of topics of interest to all photographers regardless of whether they shoot digital or film: lenses, tips on photographic visualization and composition, and so on.
But as time has gone on, its value to me has only increased especially as my interest in film photography has grown.
For the film photographer, there is a ton of meaningful information. Topics for individual chapters include technical aspects of black and white film that make exploring that medium so fascinating, film exposure, a step-by-step guide to developing negatives and making prints, and challenges unique to color film photography. As I’ve been exploring using film more seriously, I’ve found the insight this book has offered me to be invaluable. Yet again, it’s a reminder that one needs to turn to a seriously written and edited book rather than rely on what one finds on the internet.
I like the way Schaefer navigated one perennial question: is expensive gear really worth the cost? What’s the difference between what one can accomplish with a $500 camera versus a $5000 one? To be sure, cheap gear often underperforms relative to more expensive gear. Poor optical quality and mechanical construction has a way of turning up in images one produces with inexpensive camera bodies and lenses.
The difference is most often slight albeit perceptible. Does that difference warrant the cost? On this question, Schaefer writes (p. 44):
The answer is again relative. If your confidence is enhanced by knowing that you are working with the finest optical instrument available, and if you respond to the challenge and opportunity it offers, the answer is yes. Remember, however, that as factors in the quality of the photographs produced, the physical properties of camera and lenses are less limiting than the photographer’s technique and imagination.
Although he offers thoughts that let the individual make up his own mind about the question of cost—after all, what’s costly to one person isn’t to another—Schaefer reminds us that an image with true stopping power isn’t that way because of the camera. It’s that way because of the photographer’s ability to visualize an image and to creatively use a camera—any camera—to capture that image in a photograph. You can’t teach that, and you certainly can’t buy that. The instinct that lies behind the most powerful images has to be developed, and the obligation is on the photographer alone to do that.
But perhaps the most useful advice I’ve gleaned from this first volume of The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography concerns the purpose of photography. Why make all the images I feel so compelled to make? Why do photography to begin with?
These are questions that point to the importance of projects. In the final chapter of his book, Schaefer touches upon the search for photographic themes (p. 384):
Writing a colorful phrase or sentence is one thing, but crafting a poem or an essay is another matter altogether. Beginning photographers often use their cameras to create images at random, responding to momentary impulses; while individual photographs taken in this manner may be successful, the viewer is usually left with the impression of having received fragments of messages rather than fully developed ideas.
Schaefer suggests a different approach:
As you learn to master your equipment and expand your skills as a photographer, you should work toward creating photographic “essays” that examine themes in more depth. A portfolio of a dozen superb prints organized around a single idea is often much more effective than an assembly of prints of a dozen unrelated subjects.
A bit later, Schaefer continues:
One of the best ways to progress in photography is to select a subject that is accessible and of interest to you and make a commitment to create a portfolio of prints on that topic. Some of the themes that lend themselves well to such an approach are the landscapes of a region; the nature scene and nature; portraiture; people and their culture, rituals, and history; architecture; current events. Pick one of these or any other subject that stimulates your enthusiasm. Be prepared to work on your project for several months, and plan to persevere until you have assembled a collection of fine prints that you would be pleased to share with an audience. You will be delighted to find that along the way you have become a reasonably accomplished photographer.
I often take pictures of things that happen to catch my eye at random. I have a nice collection of images that document life in this way, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Life, after all, rarely if ever goes according to a predefined plan.
But I’ve also come to realize the wisdom of Schaefer’s advice. By engaging in a project, you give your photography purpose, and that purpose will help drive your photography and make it a well-formed and meaningful “essay” with greater depth than what you can accomplish by collecting little fragments of this and that and making it into a collection that ultimately lacks any coherence.
I’ve realized that meaningful projects help focus my mind, drive me to explore a theme or subject, and ultimately push me to create and assemble a collection of images that say something worthwhile.
A Place in the Sun, by John Humble
November 16, 2023
Permalink | Tags: Photography, Book Reports, Travel
There are times when I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.
One of those moments happened earlier this year. On a trip to Southern California my wife and I made this past spring, we spent a handful of nights in Santa Monica. Having decided to capture the whole trip entirely on film, I had my Nikon F with me as we strolled down the Third Street Prominade in downtown Santa Monica one afternoon. Suddenly a gentleman who was sitting on the prominade asked about my camera, and we struck up a conversation. After trading contact information, we parted ways.
That gentleman’s name was John Humble. I didn’t know it upon first meeting him, but after spending some time looking at his work through his website at johnhumble.com and his Getty Museum profile, I began to realize that I had just met someone who would become one of my most admired photographers.
Even though I haven’t totally detached myself from rendering my images in electronic form on a device screen, I’ve been warming to the value of having and looking at physically printed images. And perhaps the best way to appreciate those images is in a thoughtfully assembled and high-quality book. In many respects, as the truly good photographers will tell you, books are better investments than camera gear.
Having become familiar with his work, it became clear to me that a sampling of John Humble’s work deserved a place on my bookshelf.
A Place in the Sun (2007), the companion book to the Getty Museum exhibit of the same name, shows John Humble’s masterful ability to find beauty in settings that one might believe is completely devoid of it. He especially succeeds with locating people in the context of their surroundings. I also love his ability to draw out the simple yet striking beauty of the sweeping lines of freeway overpasses from the more human perspective of someone on the ground.
John Humble’s book became not only a valued part of my photography book collection but also a little reminder of the importance of good luck that sometimes happens when I’m out and about.
How I Make Photographs, by Joel Meyerowitz
November 15, 2023
Permalink | Tags: Photography, Book Reports
A while back I picked up a copy of Joel Meyerowitz’s 2019 book How I Make Photographs at Powell’s Books in Portland. This great little book was actually sitting on a shelf of discounted books. But I would have been happy to pay full price for it considering how thought provoking it is.
“Joel Meyerowitz is one of the most celebrated street photographers of his generation,” trumpets the blurb on the back cover inside flap. And he does indeed offer a ton of great advice to practitioners of that genre of photography. Meyerowitz tailors all of his book’s chapters around a tightly-conceived theme or suggestion, and many of those deal specifically with the challenges of street photography: “Own the Street,” “Embrace the Everyday,” “Anticipate the Moment,” and “Make Connections” are the titles for the third through sixth of the book’s twenty chapters.
But beyond street photography, Joel Meyerowitz offers something to every kind of photographer. He opens his book with a chapter entitled “Discover Your Identity as an Artist.” Along with the next chapter entitled “Be Inspired,” where he encourages his reader to let other photographers’ work spark creativity in one’s own work, Meyerowitz echoes themes I encountered in Andreas Feininger’s The Complete Photographer, namely the importance of establishing one’s own unique character as a photographer.
A sense of exploration and inexhaustible curiosity about the world drives Meyerowitz’s book. The camera, in a sense, becomes the mere vehicle by which the photographer learns more about the world and himself. “The way I see it,” Meyerowitz writes, “photography is like putting a key in a door, opening it, and seeing the world suddenly come alive” (p. 61).
I also appreciate Meyerowitz’s emphasis on trusting one’s gut. Although one needs technical competence, doing photography is not a matter of executing canned formulas. At that split-second moment when you decide to press the shutter button, an inner sense of what makes a compelling image should be the driver. It can’t be taught. It’s in all of us. Meyerowitz encourages his reader to trust that sense and develop it.
I’m guilty of being fascinated by camera gear. Maybe I shouldn’t feel guilty about that. Whatever the case may be, I know that camera gear exists to be used. Its purpose is to make images. As such, it’s important to find gear that feels comfortable. Here, too, Meyerowitz makes a compelling case. He puts particular emphasis on one’s choice of lens. After expressing what draws him in particular to wider-angle lenses, Meyerowitz turns the question back to the reader. “My most important technical advice is to find a lens that suits your personality.” Find a lens that matches how you see the world and stick with it. Don’t change lenses constantly. Be disciplined and stick with a single prime lens. “Trust me on this. Pick a lens that feels right, and if it makes you feel frustrated, change it” (p. 82). The simple and ubiquitous “nifty fifty” lens and short telephotos have, for me, become those windows I feel most comfortable using. They allow me to record how I see the world without getting in the way.
After offering some suggestions for composition, Meyerowitz encourages his reader to be courageous, push beyond personal limits, and seek out opportunities that may feel uncomfortable but that make one grow in the end.
One of my favorite chapters in How I Make Photographs is the one Meyerowitz entitled “Photography Is About Ideas.” After having spent recent years moving beyond mere snapshot shooting and becoming a more serious photographer, I’ve reflected on why I do what I do. After admitting it took him time to develop and evolve as a photographer, Meyerowitz drives home an important point. “Photography looks like pictures, but it’s really about ideas. And they’re your ideas; they are unique to you.”
He then asks a direct question: “What do you want to say?” (p. 103).
That is exactly the question that’s been on my mind lately. As I write this, I have well over 6000 images in my catalog from these past two years. That level of production is far beyond the yield of prior years when my photography practice had a more casual pace. What exactly am I trying to say with all those images?
This question doesn’t require a pompous artist’s statement to answer. Posing as expressions of profound insight, such statements more often come across as contrived gobbledygook that are ultimately meaningless. But an awareness of the elements that make one’s best work what it is still has value. Articulating what those elements are can be a challenging exercise, but it is often rather revealing.
And here the importance of culling and editing one’s work emerges, something that Meyerowitz explores at the end of his book.
In one passage, Meyerowitz reflects on one experience he had reviewing a collection of his images. After looking at hundreds of photographs, he realized that a certain theme—flowers—appeared again and again in his work. He eventually tailored an entire book, Wild Flowers (1983), around that theme:
This was a subject that popped up for me out of the editing process. So if you are searching for something new, take a journey into your own interests first. Look at the work you already have and see what it is you’ve hit on again and again. Your subject has identified itself already; it’s just that you may not have recognized it yet, and that’s your responsibility (p. 106).
Recently I’ve been doing a fair amount of editing myself. (To be clear, when I refer to “editing” I mean paring down my mass of images and identifying photographs that have more stopping power than others, not post-production editing using software like Photoshop. I’ve come to believe that no amount of post-production work will make a bad composition into a good one.) One trend I’ve noticed in my own work is one that I’ve noted in the recent past: even though I admire photography of people, I’m not really a people person. The cynical side of my personality sees a certain loneliness that characterizes life today, and I’ve been exploring that theme more consciously in my photography.
I also like portraying urban grit especially when oblique light underscores it. Black and white film in particular allows me to do all of this more effectively. I’m not trying to make any kind of groundbreaking statement here. I just like the look of it.
All of this is to say that reading Joel Meyerowitz’s How I Make Photographs gave me a good boost to continue improving my photographic practice. Buying my copy required only a small financial investment on my part, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it gave far more back to me.
October 23, 2023
Permalink | Tags: Photography, Book Reports
In The Great LIFE Photographers, one of my very favorite photography books, the most compelling images for me are those that feature people. Former LIFE photographer John Loengard opened his introduction to the book by writing, “Photographers working for LIFE like to photograph the world around them, especially the people in it and what those people do.”
Alfred Eisenstaedt, who Loengard called “the dean of LIFE photographers, if we had a dean,” famously said, “It’s more important to click with people than to click the shutter.”
In their brief bio that appears with the section on Eisenstaedt’s work in The Great LIFE Photographers, the book’s editors glowingly wrote:
Eisenstaedt never lost his childlike interest in things and people, in what made them what they were. He would put his subjects at ease, then get up close and take a few pictures—he didn’t need roll after roll—then it was on to the next person, the next happening, tirelessly pursuing the heart of the matter that he saw so easily and wanted very much for us to see too.
Eisenstaedt joined LIFE in 1963 as one of the magazine’s four original staff photographers, and he stayed there until 1972. His work is first rate, as one can plainly see in this collection of his photography from Paris in 1963, for example.
What I’ve read about taking pictures of people is by no means limited to The Great LIFE Photographers. I have several books on my shelf that offer tips and advice on how to make candid images of people effectively. Time and again I’ve read how important it is to establish relationships with people in order to win their trust and get good people shots.
I am indeed a great admirer of people photography.
But I have a confession: I’ve never been much of a people person.
Is it possible to have an interest in people photography without being a people person?
Maybe this is a matter of me being an admirer of something I’m not good at. I enjoy listening to beautiful classical piano without being much of a pianist myself. I appreciate a good painting without being anything remotely resembling a fine art painter.
At bottom, though, I’ve always been more comfortable flying under the radar and working behind the scenes.
Does that mean I can’t do meaningful photography involving people? Does that mean that my shyness is something I need to overcome?
I don’t think so. One thing I’ve been doing lately in my street photography is setting people in context of their surroundings, using a variety of techniques to blur out or otherwise obscure their faces, and so forth. I like a lot of photographs I’ve taken along these lines.
The Great LIFE Photographers also has a section on Andreas Feininger, who shot for LIFE magazine as a staff photographer from 1943 to 1962. The book’s editors introduced him this way: “LIFE’s photographers were known for their images of people, but Feininger was a profound exception.” He was “not at all a people-person,” and with a “chilly single-mindedness” he preferred to work “without any interference.” To be sure, he demonstrated a mastery of photography both in a technical and a compositional sense. But he was simply not like most of his colleagues at LIFE.
If the quality of his photography isn’t reason enough, I love Feininger’s work all the more because of his personal character, which I can completely relate with.
In his 1965 book The Complete Photographer, Feininger articulated his own approach to photography (pp. 325-326):
To me, photography is a mirror of life and any photograph worth looking at must be a reflection of life, of reality, of nature, of people, of the work of man, from art to war. I have no use for “arty” pictures nor for pictures that are stilted, posed, or faked. My approach is intellectual rather than emotional and I feel more closely related to the viewpoint of the scientist than to that of the artist. In consequence, I am more interested in facts than feelings, and clarity of rendition is important in my photographs. I have occasionally been criticized (unjustly, I feel) for being unemotional, cerebral, and cold.
Whatever my shortcomings, I have learned to accept them because I have found through experience that it is impossible to change basic traits. Instead, I try to make the best of what I am, to express myself through my pictures as precisely as possible, and to use my camera to give people new insight into some of the endlessly varying aspects of our world.
Later (p. 330), Feininger wrote:
The artistic growth of any creative person follows a definite pattern which is based upon his character, temperament, interest, sensitivity, and taste. To fine one’s own pattern is the first step in becoming an original photographer.
Originality is the sum total of one’s traits. These traits must be consciously recognized, accepted, and utilized to best advantage. They cannot be changed, although they can be suppressed. One must try to make the best of his abilities.
Feininger advised his reader not to join a stylistic movement or a school of thought. You can be influenced by others, but don’t give up your right to say what you want to say through your photography. Instead, develop whatever style distinguishes your work from that of others. “A personal style evolves from the photographer’s personality. A man who is very orderly [a man like Feininger himself?] will express this orderliness in the form of precision in his pictures.”
When I first read all this, I took it to heart immediately. It was a crystalizing moment for me, actually.
Rather than act like someone I’m not, a more constructive and effective thing for me to do is to embrace my personality traits in a positive way and to use those traits to say something original through my photography.
I believe there is a deepening sense of loneliness that characterizes modern life. Rather than help cultivate a sense of connectedness, we’ve allowed social media in particular to intensify our disconnection with each other.
Part of what I like to reflect candidly and at a distance in my photography is that increasing sense of disconnection. Time and again I’ve read that one needs to get close to his subject in order to be an effective people photographer. This may be true for a given purpose. But the sense of distance I typically maintain in my photography is a very intentional element.
I still love revisiting the superb people photography that’s in The Great LIFE Photographers, and I am continuously drawn to the work of more modern photographers who have mastered a genre that I myself am not temperamentally well suited to pursue.
But when I am out and about with my camera, the images I tend to make are those that are true to my own personality and that express my own experience. What I pursue, in other words, is a very different kind of people photography than the type that I often admire.
Magnum Contact Sheets
September 1, 2023
Permalink | Tags: Photography, Book Reports
A few days ago thanks to, of all things, an article on the Apple News app—it never ceases to amaze me how much garbage I find there, but I still navigate to it (I don’t know why)—I discovered a book entitled Magnum Contact Sheets.
In a roundabout way, I ended up also discovering that the book was available in its entirety for checkout on archive.org, a virtual online library. Paging through it on my iPad, I was struck and somehow comforted by how many stinker images photographers often captured on the roll of film that contained the one good keeper image that was the center of discussion for each contact sheet. Many of those keeper images were iconic ones in the history of photography.
I ended up buying a copy of the book. It’s nice to have access to some books online, but sometimes it’s worth the expense that it takes to get the actual physical paper in my hands.
Perusing through the book, I began thinking about how I could create my own contact sheets both for my digital and film photography. After a bit more contemplation, I remembered that the Windows print dialog for images includes an option to print a contact sheet for a collection of image files. I poked around Canon’s Digital Photo Professional, which I use to edit all my raw image files and to generate JPEGs, and I discovered that it, too, has a feature for printing contact sheets with a much more robust set of options than what the Windows photo print dialog offers.
What a great way to capture a complete chronological record of images I may take in a given session. I may not want images that are clearly not keepers to consume significant disk space, but I’d like to maintain a record of what I shot from end to end, if anything, to preserve the train of thought I had when I was working a subject.
When I went out and about today, a welcomingly wet and cloudy day considering that we’ve been dealing with wildfire smoke for the past few weeks, I shot photos on my walk with the intent to save everything I shot on a digital contact sheet. I ended up saving only a handful of images from that photo shoot, and I rated an even smaller number as being worthy of any regard. But I now have an end-to-end record of my walk and an indication of how many images I often shoot in order to get a handful of keeper images.