the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “focus



IF IT’S JANUARY (as it is at this writing, the head end of 2023), then it’s time for rifling through endless old image files for two diametrically opposed searches: one for the pictures that I hastily conferred “keeper” status on, and the other for photographs that took a bit of time to win me over. In the case of the former, many a shot that initially seemed to be a hit reveals itself as a mishap of magical thinking, or of me wanting to believe that the pictures were better than they were. This comes from mistaking good intentions for actual achievement. In the latter case, I have done just the opposite, skirting over something that didn’t hit me in the gut at first glance but now strikes me as slightly more than passable. The first search is good for humility. The second is an exercise in joy.

In reviewing the pictures that were once faves but now seem “meh” to me, I find myself searching for answers to the question, “what was I thinking?”, each answer invaluable if I have the guts to face reality. In looking at the re-discovered gems, I struggle to define the common thread that courses through all of anyone’s pictures that really, really connect with me. A few key findings emerge:

Land Of Opportunity EF

First, only a handful of them were taken with amazing, or even decent cameras. Bad tools can make picture-making trickier, but even if you’re holding a non-responsive brick in your hands, love will find a way. Secondly, even when taken on decent equipment, a surprising number of the neo-keepers are quite technically imperfect. In fact, more than a few violate even basic rules of composition, exposure, and so on. Still other newly-adored pix were shots were the product of very fast decisions: that is, if they were planned at all, they are short on reaction time and long on raw instinct. In the case of the image shown above, for example,all three of the things that I have listed as compromising factors are in evidence. The picture was taken during an aggravating day on which one of my oldest DSLRs was actively dying on me, its exhausted shutter freezing on every other frame: it is not particularly sharp, and in fact contains a few radical blowouts (some of whom have been mercifully cropped): and, finally, I had about three seconds from “maybe this would work” to “a passing car has now obliterated half the scene”. I did not literally shoot this from my hip, but I might as well have.

Strangely, the final image appeals to me more than a few others taken before and after it, pictures where the camera was, you know, actually working. I shuffled past it with a grunt upon first viewing, and yet, over a year later, I see something in it that I wish I could do more purposefully at some other time. Maybe our self-grading on the curve is like the charitable comments many a teacher has scrawled on a kid’s mediocre report card: “shows potential”. Some days, viewing one’s work in a certain way, that assessment is even better than getting straight “A”‘s.




IN LEARNING HOW TO MAKE PICTURES, we progress from the general to the particular, in that we initially learn formalized rules that apply in many or most situations, and then develop our own, shorter list of more rubbery regulations that most precisely fit our own approach to creativity. We learn from rigid do’s and don’ts, “always” and “nevers” that gradually bend or dissolve in deference to our fully realized style.

That means that, in photography, all standards are negotiable, even disposable. Think what freedom that sentence implies. In architecture, such a thing is not possible, since a building either has support or doesn’t. In math, such leeway is nigh unto unthinkable, because the specs in a space vehicle are either in tolerance (people survive) or out (people don’t survive). However, in a visual art, things work when they work, whether they adhere to a formal technique or not.


Because of its fairly soft focus, this picture, according to some who may view it, is imperfect, flawed, or what might term a bad photograph. It had to be grabbed in a second of impulse because everything in it was perishable. Things like the approaching auto, because it was needed for scale, composition, and a sense of urgency: the storm, which was refracting the dying sunlight of a late afternoon in amazing, but fleeting contrast: even my car, since I was shooting out my driver’s side window and would soon have to move on to avoid snarling traffic. It is not a precise picture, but instead it is an image of an opportunity. I might, with an additional second or two, have guaranteed the sharpness that, for some, disqualifies this shot, but I was shooting one-handed, and on full manual, and the oh-what-the-hell rule trumped everything else.

But for me, everything else except the lack of sharpness works powerfully enough to “sell” the picture, to convey what I felt when snapping it. Crispness might have been an additional plus for the final image, but I will never know. I do know how rotten I would have felt if I hadn’t had a go at it. Emotions can often carry a photograph where mere technical precision can never reach, and you’ll know when the time is right to choose one or the other.



OVER THE YEARS, I HAVE FILLED PAGES OF THIS LITTLE HOMETOWN NEWSPAPER with confessional accounts of my weaknesses in many areas of photography, with special emphasis on my underdeveloped skill with landscapes. To say that I need improvement in this area is, on the Captain Obvious scale, somewhat akin to breaking the hot bulletin that Batman has anger issues. And yet we soldier on.

It’s hard to look out upon a vast mountain vista or a yawning canyon and think in terms of simplicity. At least in my own case. I initially came to the visual arts as an illustrator, influenced by artists that I can only call “completists” in that they drew intricate compilations of every leaf, stone and speck within a scene, a technique that my infant brain referred to as “realistic”. It follows, then, that as I segued into photography, my instinct was to go for that illustrative look, with tons of detail, and a broad panoramic sweep. It drew me to grand subjects and wide, wide lenses.


Occasionally, this has served me well, but more often it gave me a severe case of Too Much Picture, frames that were so drowned in detail and visual information that I was challenged to tell succinct, clear stories in landscape form. There was always plenty to look at, but I wasn’t developing a real instinct for what a viewer should look at first, or should regard as the central narrative focus of a picture. My sense of composition still fell too often into the “get everything in there” side of the fence. I produced well-focused pictures of scenes that were always okay, but seldom compelling.

These days, I fight to make the simplest framings that I can. I struggle to present one main idea and make everything else in the image subservient to that idea, or at least to get out of its way. The frame seen here is done quite differently than I might have made it as a younger man. The forked cactus at the center has been designated as the main messenger of the picture, with everything else reduced in definition or importance. In the past, I might have tried to expose the picture uniformly, with every spine, frond and branch in the same brightness or color intensity. Now I am far more likely, in this case, to expose just for the central open space and leave the surrounding halo frame in shadow….the idea being to let some things have louder voices in a picture than other things. I have done the same thing with selective focus, using blur or softer resolution to force attention onto the primary feature in the picture. 

I still have a lot of work to do, but at least I have moved from my original habit of giving all elements in a landscape equal status to trying to, if you like, direct eye traffic to greater effect. It’s a struggle for balance between the picture’s M&Ms, or the major and minor messengers for that particular photograph. It’s not an exact science. Hell, it’s not even an exact art. But it’s the only way I can shoot landscapes if I want to escape the dreaded gravitational pull of Planet Postcard. 



Our idea of what a photograph "is" must be constantly in play.

Isoceles’ Greatest Hits (2016). Our idea of what a photograph “is” must be constantly in play.


IF YOU SPEND ENOUGH YEARS MAKING PICTURES, you will see, looking back over your shoulder, several visible mile markers indicating when something fundamental changed in how you went about the pursuit of the capture. It can be a simple time line from one camera or lens to the next, or a sequence of shifts in style or emphasis.

For some, it’s the leap from film to digital. For others, the moment when it seemed important to commit anew to monochrome, or the day when one’s work flow took on decidedly new features. For me, it’s always been those events or people who have allowed me to dramatically re-evaluate the process of seeing.

Poring over various things I attempted to do in 2016, I seem to be standing in a niche between how I have traditionally visualized subjects and how I’m aspiring to, marking a more dramatic evolution than I’ve experienced for a while. This change can be simply expressed as a different view of what’s “real” in a picture, brought on by my work with lenses that allowed focus to be more selectively manipulated within an image.

Some of this can be seen in images seen in the new page 20 for 16, clickable at the top of this one. Like other year-end summaries, it tries to cite examples of every type of photograph I attempted over the space of a year, from portraits to still lifes and everything in between. However, unlike most other years, the images have what I might call an evolving view of the role of sharpness; how it features in a composition, how much of it is essential, whether it is even needed at all, given the right conditions.

Some of these explorations in variable sharpness involved embracing a new crop of specialized lenses which either evoke the softer look of vintage glass or allow the shooter to place focus anywhere in the frame, and to any degree desired.  However, at least one picture is the product of post-production apps applied to smart phone images, showing, if nothing else, that it’s probably the destination that matters more than the journey. Or not.

As an essential component in all photography, focus is a major determinant in that we think of as a “photograph”, and, in turn, what makes that photograph “real”. However, photography is not merely the recording of the actual but a visualization of the possible. It bridges the gap between tangible and potential. Merely unchaining sharpness, by itself, guarantees nothing in the way of order, and might merely produce chaos. Still, the moment when a particular choice can either enhance or enchant…. that’s we live for; that’s what we reach for.

Thank you again for your kind attention, your advice, and your enthusiasm….and Happy New Year.


How soft is too soft? 1/30 sec., F/4, ISO 400,

How soft is too soft? Shot with a Lensbaby Sweet 35 optic at 1/30 sec., F/4, ISO 400, 35mm.


WINDOW TO THE SOUL: that’s the romantic concept of the human eye, both in establishing our emotional bonds with each other and, in photography, revealing something profound in portraiture. The concept is so strong that it is one of the only direct links between painting (the way the world used to record emotional phenomena) and photography, which has either imitated or augmented that art for two full centuries. Lock onto the eyes, we say, and you’ve nailed the essence of the person.

So let’s do a simple comparison experiment. In recent years, I’ve begun to experiment more and more with selective-focus optics such as the Lensbaby family of art lenses. Lensbabies are unabashedly “flawed” in that they are not designed to deliver uniform focus, but, in fact, use the same aberrations that we used to design out of lenses to isolate some subjects in intensely sharp areas ( so-called “sweet spots”) surrounded by gradually increasing softness.

As a great additional feature, this softness can even occur in the same focal plane as a sharply rendered object. That means that object “A”, five feet away from the camera, can be quite blurry, while object “B”, located just inches to the side of “A”, and also five feet from the camera, can register with near-perfect focus. Thus, Lensbaby lenses don’t record “reality”: they interpret mood, creating supremely subjective and personal “reads” on what kind of reality you prefer.

Exact same settings as the prior example, but with a slightly tighter focus of the Lensbaby's central "sweep spot".

Exact same settings as the prior example, but with a slightly tighter focus of the Lensbaby’s central “sweep spot”.

Art lenses can accentuate what we already know about faces, and specifically, eyes…that is, that they remain vital to the conveyance of the personality in a portrait. In the first sample, Marian’s entire face takes on the general softness of the entire frame, which is taken with a Lensbaby Sweet 35 lens at f/4 but is not sharply focused in the central sweet spot. In the second sample, under the same exposure conditions, there is a conscious effort to sharpen the center of her face, then feather toward softness as you radiate out from there.

The first exposure is big on mood, with Marian serving as just another “still life” object, but it may not succeed as a portrait. The second shot uses ambient softness to keep the overall intimacy of the image, but her face still acts as a very definite anchor. You “experience” the picture first in her features, and then move to the data that is of, let’s say, a lower priority.

Focus is negotiated in many different ways within a photograph, and there is no empirically correct approach to it. However, in portrait work, it’s hard to deny that the eyes have it, whatever “it” may be.

Windows to the soul?

More like main clue to the mystery.


It went “zip” when it moved and “bop” when it stopped,
And “whirr” when it stood still.
I never knew just what it was and I guess I never will.

Tom Paxton, The Marvelous Toy

My antedeluvian Minolta SRT-500 camera body, crowned by its original f/1.7 50mm prime kit lens. Guess which one is worth its weight in gold?

My antedeluvian Minolta SRT-500 camera body, crowned by its original f/1.7 50mm prime kit lens. Guess which part is worth its weight in gold?


THERE ARE MORE OLD LENSES THAN THERE ARE OLD CAMERAS. There’s a reason for this. Bodies come and go like spring and fall dress collections. Lenses are the solid, reliable blue jeans that never go out of style. Lenses hold their value for decades, often selling for (or even above) their original asking prices. Bodies become landfill.

Many times, when people believe they have outgrown their cameras, they are actually just in need of glass that performs better. The importance of selecting a lens is as important in the digital age as it was in the film era. The eye through which you visualize your dreams has to be clear and precise, and so does the thinking that goes into its selection. That process, for me, breaks down into three main phases.

First, before you buy anything, raise a prayer of thanks for the Holy Internet. There is, now, not only no need, but also no excuse to buy the wrong lens. Read the manufacturer’s press releases. The reviews from both pros and amateurs nearest your own skill level. And be ecumenical about it. Read articles by people who hate the lens you think you love. Hey, better to ID a problem child before he’s living under your roof. Watch the Youtube videos on basics, like how to unpack the thing, how many parts it has, how to rotate the geetus located to the left of the whatsit to turn it on. Find out how light efficient it is, because the freer you are of flash units and tripods, the better for your photography. And, at this early shopping stage, as with all other stages, keep asking yourself the tough questions. Do I really need another lens, or do I just need to be better with what I already own (which is cheaper)? Will it allow me to make pictures that I can’t currently make? Most importantly, in six months, will it be my “go-to”, or another wondrous toy sleeping in my sock drawer? 

Assuming that you actually do buy a new lens after all that due diligence, nail it onto your camera and force yourself to use it exclusively for a concentrated period. Take it on every kind of shoot and force it to make every kind of picture, especially the ones that seem counter-intuitive. Is it a great zoom? Well, hey, it might make an acceptable macro lens as well.  But you’ll never know unless you try. You can’t even say what the limits of a given piece of glass are until you attempt to exceed them. Find out how well it performs at every aperture, every distance, every f/stop. Each lens has a sweet spot of optimum focus, and while that may be the standard two stops above wide open, don’t assume that. Take lots of bad pictures with the lens (this part is really easy, especially at the beginning). They will teach you more than the luck-outs.

Final phase: boot camp for you personally. Now that you have this bright shiny new plaything, rise to the level of what it offers. Prove that you needed it by making the best pictures of your life with it. Change how you see, plan, execute, edit, process, and story-tell. See if the lens can be stretched to do the work of several of your other lenses, the better to slim down your profile, reduce the junk hanging around your neck, and speed up your reaction time to changing conditions.

Work it until you can’t imagine how you ever got along without it.






Looking West, 2016. A portrait shot with a Lensbaby Composer Pro, an effects lens with built-in selective focus.

Looking West, 2016. A portrait shot with a Lensbaby Composer Pro, an effects lens with a moveable “sweet spot” of selective focus.


THE CREATIVE USE OF SHARPNESS is one of the key techniques in photography. From the beginning of the medium, it’s been more or less conceded that not everything in an image needs to register at the same level of focus, that it can be manipulated to direct attention to the essence of a photograph. It’s always about telling the viewer to look here, ignore this, regard this as important.

This selective use of focus applies to the human face no less than to any other element in a composition. It’s strange that photography drew so strongly on painting in its early years without following the painter’s approach to portraits…..that is, that individual parts of a face can register in different degrees of sharpness, just like anything else in the frame. From the earliest days of photo-portraiture, there seems to have been an effort to show the entire face in very tight focus, de-emphasizing backgrounds by hazing them into a soft blur. It took a while before photography saw itself as a separate art, and thus this “always” rule only became a “sometimes” rule over a protracted period of time.

The Pictorialism fetish of the early 20th century, which avidly imitated the look of paintings, went completely the other direction, generating portraits that were almost uniformly soft, as if shot through gauze, or, you guessed it, painted on canvas. In recent years, shooters have begun a new turn toward a kind of middle stance, with the selective use of sharpness in specific parts of a face, say an eye or a mouth. It’s more subtle than the uniform crispness of olden days, and affords shooters a wider range of expression in portraits.

Some of this has been driven by technology, as in the case of the Lensbaby lenses, which often have a tack-sharp “sweet spot” at their center, with everything else in the frame fanning outward to a feathery blur. Additionally, certain Lensbabies, like the Composer Pro, are mounted on a kind of ball turret, allowing the user to rotate the center of the lens to place the sweet spot wherever in the image he/she wants. This makes it possible, as in the above shot, for parts of objects that are all in the same focal plane to be captured at varying degrees of sharpness. Note that, while all of the woman’s face is the same distance from the camera, only her eyes and the right side of her face are truly sharp. This dreamlike quality has become popular with a new breed of portraitists,  and, indeed, there are already wedding photographers who advertise that they do entire events exclusively with these kinds of lenses.

The face is a composition element, and, as such, benefits from a flexible approach to focus. One man’s blur is another man’s beautification.




Sharpness should be achieved in your intial shot, not "cranked in" in post-editing.

Sharpness should be achieved in your intial shot by use of contrast and color, not “dialed up” in post-editing. 1/160 sec., f/8, ISO 100, 22mm.


THE AVAILABILITY OF PHOTO PROCESSING TOOLS, TO ARTIST AND BEGINNER ALIKE, in the digital era, has created a kind of unfortunate slingshot effect, as all suddenly achieved freedoms tend to. Once it became possible for Everyman to tweak images in a way that was once exclusively the province of the professional, there followed a trend toward twisting every dial in the tool box to, let’s be honest, rescue a lot of marginal shots. Raise your hand if you’ve ever tried to glam up a dud. Now raise your hand if you inadvertently made a bad picture worse by slathering on the tech goo.

Welcome to the phenomenon known as over-correction.

It’s human nature, really. Look at Hollywood. Suddenly freed from the confines of the old motion picture production code in the 1960’s, directors, understandably, took a few years to make up for decades of artistic construction by pumping out a nude scene and/or a gore fest  in everything from romantic comedies to Pink Panther cartoons. Several seasons of adolescent X-rated frolics later, movies settled down to a new normal. The over-correction gave way to a more mature, even restrained style of film making.

Am I joining the ranks of anti-Photoshop trolls? Not exactly, but I am noting that, as we grow as photographers, we will put more energy into planning the best picture (all energy centered before the snap of the shutter), and less energy into “fixing it in post”. If you shoot long enough and work hard enough, that shift will just happen. More correctly designed in-camera images equals fewer pix that need to be dredged from Dudland.

Look at the simple idea of sharpening. That slithery slider is available to everyone, and we all race after it like a kid chasing the Good Humor truck. And yet, it is a wider range of color and contrast, which we can totally control in the picture-taking process, which will result in more natural sharpness than the Slider Of Joy can even dream of. As a matter of fact, test my argument with your own shots. Increase your control of contrast or color and see if it doesn’t help wean you off the sharpen tool. Or expose your shots more carefully in-camera rather than removing shadows and rolling off highlights later. Or any other experiment. Your goals, your homework.

The point being that more mindful picture-making will eliminate the need for many crutch-like editing tweaks after the fact. And if that also makes you a better shooter overall, isn’t that pretty much the quest?


Wiltern On Wilshire, 2015.

Wiltern On Wilshire, 2015. At f/3.5 and an ISO of 1000, this is an acceptably sharp hand-held exposure. Want the lights to be sharper? Might have to go tripod.


I HAVE OCCASIONALLY SOUNDED WHAT, I ADMIT, IS A PREMATURE FUNERAL DIRGE for the lowly tripod, that balky, bulky, creaky throwback to the 19th century that continues to linger as an occasional, if fading, tool of the 21st. Part of this stems from the pure aggravation involved in trucking the things around, getting them locked and level, and praying that nothing from a stiff wind to an enraged gopher to a power-tripping mall cop will intervene to undo the entire rickety works. Hey, I’m not a hater, just a very reluctant fan.

One of the reasons I’ve mostly weaned myself from the pod is the ever-evolving speed of lenses and sensors in the digital era. This means scenes with less and less light can be captured with greater sharpness in short, hand-held exposures, albeit with a little more visual noise or grain. You can now shoot on a dark street at night, if your lens opens wide enough to keep your ISO as low as possible and if you can maintain a rock-steady grip on your camera at shutter speeds around 1/20  or so. And, for many cases, the results from this setup will be quite satisfactory.

However, we ain’t just about being satisfied, are we, mmmm?

Problem with a wide exposure and bright highlights (like the theatre marquee in the above shot) is that those elements will burn in and become diffuse, even in fast exposures, especially since your ISO setting is instructing your sensor to suck light like a maniac. As a result, instead of being sharp pinpoints of light, they will often turn soft and globby. If you can live with that, then go in peace and sin no more, my son.

However, if you really need to get those lights as sharp as you see them with your own eye, you might try doing a longer exposure at a smaller aperture, and that can mean dragging the pod down from the attic and doing it old-school. Good news is that you can now crank your ISO back down to minimum, so, yay, no noise atall, atall. You also might pick up some more contrast and detail within bright objects, like the horizontal lines on the above marquee. Bad news is, duh, you’re using a tripod. Hey, is that a mall cop I see running over here?



Mona Lisa Smoke Shop, Washington D.C., 2013.

Mona Lisa Smoke Shop, Washington D.C., 2013.


IF YOU TRAVEL ENOUGH, YOU’LL DISCOVER THAT, OF ALL THE TIMES YOU WANT to take a photograph, there are only a few times in which acceptable picture-making conditions are actually present. For all too many subjects that you experience on the fly, only a small percentage of them allow you the time, light, information or opportunity to do your best. And yet…you do what you must, and trust to instinct and chance for the rest.

Immediately upon arrival in a new town, my mind goes to one task, and one task only: sticking anyone else with the driving, so I can take potshots out the car window as I see fit. I have no need to head the posse or lead the expedition. You be in  charge, big man. Get me to the hotel and leave me to make as many attempts as possible to put something worthwhile inside my camera.

Of course, this means that I have to pay at least some attention to how insanely you drive…shortcuts, rapid swerves, jolts and all. And, hey, couldn’t you have lingered a millisecond longer after the light went green, since I was just about to create an immortal piece of street art, instead of the muscular spasm I now have frozen forever on my memory card?

When shooting from a car, there are lots of things that go out the window (sorry), among them composition, exposure, stability, and, most generally, focus. En route to L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C. a few years ago, I fell in love with the funky little tobacco shop you see here. The colors, the woodwork, the look of yesteryear, it all spoke to me, and I had to have it. So I shot it at 1/250 sec, more than fast enough to freeze nearly anything in focus, unless by “nearly anything” you mean something that you’re not careening past at the pace of the average Tijuana taxicab. Result? Well, I didn’t wind up with unspeakable blur, but it’s certainly softer than I wanted. Of course, I could have offered an acceptable alibi for the shot, something based on some variant like, “of course, I meant to do that”, that is, until I outed myself in this post, just now.

But we try. Sometimes it’s the fleeting nature of things seen from car windows that make the attempt even more appealing than the potential result. In that instant, it seems like nothing’s more important than trying to take a picture. That picture. I won’t get ’em all. But as long as I live, I hope I never lose that mad, what-the-hell urge to just go for it.

So okay, seeing as this is a photo of a tobacco shop, this is where one of you cashes in the “close, but no cigar” gag line.

Go ahead, I’ll give you that one.


Moody, but still a bit too tidy. Back and white by itself wasn't enough to create the atmosphere I wanted.

Moody, but still a bit too tidy. Black and white by itself wasn’t enough to create the atmosphere I wanted.


EVEN THOUGH MOST GREAT PHOTOGRAPHERS PROCLAIM that any “rules” in their medium exist only to be broken, it’s often tough to chuck out regulations that have served you well over a lifetime of work. Once you get used to producing decent images through the repetition of habit, it takes extra nerve to take yourself outside your comfort zone, even if it means adding impact to your shots. You tend not to think of rules as arbitrary or confining, but as structural pillars that keep the roof from falling in.

That’s why it’s a good exercise to force yourself to do something that you feel is a bad fit for your style, lest your approach to everything go from being solid to, well, fossilized. If you hate black and white, make yourself shoot only monochrome for a week. If you feel cramped by square framing, make yourself work exclusively in that compositional format, as if your camera were incapable of landscape or portrait orientations. In my own case, I have to pry my brain away from an instinctual reliance on pinsharp focus, something which part of me fears will lead to chaos in my images. However, as I occasionally force myself to admit, sharp ain’t everything, and there may even be some times when it will kill, or at least dull, a picture.

Sharpness where it's needed, and nowhere else.

Sharpness just where it’s needed, and nowhere else.

With post-processing such an instantaneous, cheap, and largely effortless option these days, there really isn’t any reason to not at least try various modes of partial focus just to see where it will lead. Take what you believe will work in terms of the original shot, and experiment with alternate ways of interpreting what you started with.

In the shot at the top of this post, I tried to create mood in a uniquely shaped fish house with monochrome and a dour exposure on a nearly colorless day. Thing is, the image carried too much detail to be effectively atmospheric. The place still looked like a fairly new, fairly spiffy eatery located in an open-air shopping district. I wanted it to look like a worn, weathered joint, a marginal hangout that haunted the wharf that its seafood theme and design suggested. I needed to add more mood and mystery to it, and merely shooting in black & white wasn’t going to get me there, so I ran the shot through an app that created a tilt-shift focus effect, localizing the sharpness to the rooftop sign only and letting the rest of the structure melt into murk.

It shouldn’t be hard to skate around a rule in search of an image that comes closer to what you see in your mind, and yet it can require a leap of faith. Hard to say why trying new things spikes the blood pressure. We’re not heart surgeons, after all, and no one dies if we make a mistake.Anyway, you are never more than one click away from your next best picture.


Are you going to say that this picture would speak any more eloquently if it were razor-sharp? I didn't think so.

Are you going to say that Robert Capa’s picture of the D-day invasion would speak any more eloquently if it were razor-sharp? I didn’t think so.


THE EARLY YEARNING OF PHOTOGRAPHERS TO MASTER OR EXCEED THE TECHNICAL LIMITS OF THEIR MEDIUM led, in the 1800’s, to a search for visual “perfection”. For rendering tones accurately. For capturing details faithfully. And, above all, for tight, sharp focus. This all made perfect sense in an era when films were so slow that people sitting for portraits had to have steel rods running up the backs of their necks to help them endure three-minute exposures. Now, mere mechanical perfection long since having become possible in photography, it’s time to think of what works in a picture first, and what grade we get on our technical “report card” second.

This means that we need no longer reject a shot on technical grounds alone, so long as it succeeds on some other platform, especially an emotional one. Further, we have to review and even re-review images, by ourselves as well as others, that we think “failed” in one way or another, and ask ourself for a new definition of what “failure” means. Did the less-than-tack-sharp focus interfere with the overall story? Did the underexposed sections of the frame detract from the messaging of what was more conventionally lit? Look to the left. at Robert Capa’s iconic image of the D-Day invasion at Normandy. He was just a little busy dodging German snipers to fuss with pinpoint focusing, but I believe that the world jury has pretty much ruled on the value of this “failed” photo. So look inward at the process you use to evaluate your own work. Give it your worst shot, if you will, and see what you think now, today.

The Last Burst, 2008.

The Last Burst, 2008. 1/80 sec., f/5.6, ISO 800, 50mm.

The above image came from a largely frustrating day a few years back at a horse show in which I spent all my effort trying to freeze the action of the riders, assuming that doing so would deliver some kind of kinetic drama. I may have been right to think along these lines, but doing so made me automatically reject a few shots that, in retrospect, I no longer think of as total failures. The equestrienne in this frame looks as eager, even as exhausted as her mount, and the slight blur in both of them that I originally rejected now seems to work for me. There is a greater blur of the surrounding arena, which is fine, since it’s merely a contextual setting for the foreground figures, but I now have to wonder if I would like the picture better (given that it’s supposed to be suggestive of speed) if the foreground were completely sharp. I’m no longer so sure.

I think that all images have to stand or fall on what they accomplish, regardless of discipline or intention.We only kid ourselves into equating technical perfection with aesthetic success. Sometimes they walk into the room hand in hand. Other times they arrive in separate cars.



Shooting from the hip can be an urban photographer's secret weapon. 1/40 sec., f/3.5, ISO 500, 18mm.

Shooting “from the hip” can be an urban photographer’s secret weapon. 1/40 sec., f/3.5, ISO 500, 18mm.


WHEN FACED WITH A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT APPROACH TO OUR PHOTOGRAPHY, the crabbier among us are liable to utter one of two responses. Both sound negative, but one could be positive:

Response #1: “I’d never do that!” (Emphatically negative. Discussion over. You will not persuade me.)

Response #2:”Why would I want to do that???”  (Possibly as close-minded as response #1, but the person could be asking a legitimate question, as in, ‘show me the benefit in doing it your way, because I can’t imagine a single reason why I should change’.)

When first reading about the street photography technique of “shooting from the hip”, I was a definite response #2. Wasn’t going to slam the door on trying it, but failed to see what I would get out of it. The phrase means just what you’d think it does, referring to people with obvious cameras who do “street” work, shooting with the camera hanging at waist level, never bringing the viewfinder up to their eye. Subjects don’t cringe or lock up because you don’t “seem” to be taking a picture, and thus your images of them are far more unguarded and natural.

Now, suggesting this to a person who has never even owned a camera that didn’t have a viewfinder is a little like asking him to try to take pictures from the inside of a burlap sack. Kinda makes my inner control freak throw a bratrum (a brat tantrum). Think of it from my point of view. If I shoot manually all the time (I do) and if I need my viewfinder like Linus needs his blanket (cause, hey, I’m a tortured and insecure artist), then squeezing off a shot without even knowing if it’s in frame is, to say the least, counter-intuitive (French for “nuts”).

So there you have your honestly expressed Response #2.

Some things that finally made it worth at least trying:

It don’t cost nothin’.

I can practice taking pictures that I don’t care about. I wouldn’t be shooting these things or people even with total control, so what’s to lose?

Did I mention it don’t cost nothin’?

Shooters beware: clicking from the hip is far from easy to master. Get ready to take lots of photos that look like they came from your Urban Outfitter Soviet Union-era Plastic Toy Hipsta Camera. You want rakish tilt? You got it. You like edgy, iffy focus? It’s a given. In other words, you’ll spend a lotta time going through your day’s work like the Joker evaluating Vicki Vale’s portfolio (….”crap….crap….crap….” ). But you might eventually snag a jewel, and it feels so deliciously evil to procure truly candid shots that you may develop an addiction to the affliction. Observe a few basics: shoot as wide as you can, cause 35s, 50s and other primes won’t give you enough scope in composition at close range: go with as fast a shutter speed as the light will allow (in low light, compromise on the ISO): if possible, shoot  f/5.6 or smaller: and, finally,learn how to pre-squeeze the autofocus and listen for its quiet little zzzz, then tilt the camera just far enough up to make sure everyone has a head, and go.

At worst, it forces you to re-evaluate the way you “see” a shot, since you have no choice but to accept what the camera could see. At best, you might see fewer bared fangs from people snarling, “hey is that a $&@*! camera?” inches from your nose. And that’s a good thing.



Symmetry is key with square compositions.

Symmetry is key with square compositions.

I WAS AT THE MORGAN LIBRARY IN NEW YORK earlier this week, combining a museum tour with a photo shoot, when I came upon an exhibit which featured one of the earliest Kodak consumer prints, with the image contained inside a circle, rather than the rectangular frames most of us remember. It reminded me that the very formatics of picture-making were, for a long time, dictated by the physical dimensions of either camera or film, and that, suddenly, we are free to make photographs of any proportions we choose, anytime, everytime.

It’s really an amazing liberation, and, as an ironic consequence, some photographers are choosing to return to the framing formats that they used to decry as too limiting, subjecting themselves to the extra discipline of staying within a boundary and adjusting their compositional priorities thusly. This has made for a kind of revival of the square image, and there seem to be some distinct advantages to the trend.

Shooting on the square means calling attention to the center of an image, to using symmetry to your advantage, and to paring your composition to its bare essentials. The negative space used in landscape or portrait modes can still work within a square image, but the subject, and your use of it, must be just right. Squaring off means calling immediate attention to your message, and making it all the stronger, since there’s nowhere else for the eye to go.

Andrew Gibson, writing for the website Digital Photography School, explains the visual appeal of the square:

Using the square format encourages the eye to move around the frame in a circle. This is different from the rectangular frame, where the eye is encouraged to move from side to side (landscape format) or up and down (portrait format). The shape of the frame is a major factor.

It’s odd to think of freeing up your photography by voluntarily working within a more restrictive format. And, unlike the old days of square-only shooting, the effect is largely created “after the click”, by re-composing through creative cropping. But the additional mindfulness can really boost the power of your images.


Fan photo: 1/80 sec., ISO 100, 35mm.

Fan photo: 1/80 sec., ISO 100, 35mm.


THERE ARE TIMES WHEN THE RAW VISUAL FLOOD OF INTENSE COLOR IS THE MOST INTOXICATING DRUG ON THE PLANET, at least for photographers. Sometimes you are so overcome with what’s possible from a loud riot of hues that you just assume you are going to be able to extract a coherent image from it. It happens the most, I find, with large, sprawling events: festivals, open restaurants, street fairs, carnivals, anywhere your eyeballs just go into overload. Of course there must be a great picture in all this, you promise yourself.

And there may be. But some days you just can’t find it in the sheer “Where’s Waldo”-ness of the moment. Instead, you often wind up with a grand collection of clutter and no obvious clues as to where your viewer  should direct his gaze. The technical term for this is “a mess”.

I stepped in a great one the other day. It’s a local college-crowd bar in Scottsdale, Arizona, where 99% of the customers sit outside on makeshift benches, shielded from the desert sun by garish Corona umbrellas, warmed by patio heaters, and flanked by loud pennants, strings of aerial lightbulbs and neon booze ads. The place radiates fun, and, even during the daylight hours before it opens, it just screams party. The pictures should take themselves, right?

Well, maybe it would have been better if they had. As in, “leave me out of it”. As in, “someone get me a machete so I can hack away half of this junk and maybe find an image.” Try as I might, I just could not frame a simple shot: there was just too much stuff to give me a clean win in any frame. In desperation, I shot through a window to make a large cooling fan a foreground feature against some bright pennants, and accidentally did what I should have done first. I set the shot so quickly that the autofocus locked on the fan, blurring everything else in the background into abstract color. It worked. The idea of a party place had survived, but in destroying my original plan as to how to shoot it, I had saved it, sorta.

I have since gone back to the conventional shots I was trying to make, and they are still a vibrant, colorful mess. There are big opportunities in big, colorful scenes where showing “everything in sight” actually works. When it doesn’t, you gotta be satisfied with the little stories. We’re supposed to be interpreters, so let’s interpret already.


Ordinary, familiar subject matter, yes, but for a few moments its display of light was all the "subject" I needed. 1/200 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Ordinary, familiar objects, yes, but, for a few moments. their display of light was all the “subject” I needed. 1/200 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.


ONE OF THE THINGS I OCCASIONALLY MISS ABOUT WORKING WITH PRIMITIVE CAMERAS is that the terms of success and failure are so stark. As Yoda says, you either do or do not…there is no “try”. If you have a limited piece of  gear, it will always be capable (or incapable) of exactly the same things. That argument is settled, and so you have to find good pictures where they naturally occur….truly thinking outside (or without) the box.

The fact that you will get little or no extra help from the camera is initially limiting, but also, in a strange way, freeing.

On the other hand, the better your equipment, the more opportunities you have to counter iffy lighting conditions in your subjects. Photography today is about almost never having to say, “I couldn’t get the shot”… least not because of a lack of sufficient light. It’s just one more imperfect thing that shooting on full auto “protects” you from. But the argument could be made that ultra-smart cameras give you an output that, over time, can be stunningly average. The camera is making so many decisions of its own, in comparison to your measly little button flick, that every shot you “take” is pushing you further and further away from assuming active control of what happens.

Early morning shadows shift suddenly, presenting many different ways to see the same subject. 1/400 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Early morning shadows shift suddenly, presenting many different ways to see the same subject. 1/400 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Hunting for images that you could capture with virtually no “help” from your camera is a more active process, since it involves planning. It means looking for pictures that your camera may not be able to grab without your specific input. And one great way is to shoot images that don’t matter in themselves, so that you are letting the light,  and not the subject, be the entire story.  That, and shooting on manual.

Back yards are great because they are convenient stages for light tracking. You can see the light conditions shift over the course of an entire day. Better still, it’s familiar territory that can only become more familiar, since it’s so close at hand, and available anytime. Since you will have more “what am I gonna shoot?” days than “amazing” days over a lifetime, fill them up by giving yourself a seminar in “this is what the light does”. Believe me, something worth keeping will happen.

Early morning, just after dawn, is the best time to work, because the minute-to-minute changes are so markedly unique. Wait too long and you lose your window. Or maybe you’re there in just another few minutes, when something just as good may present itself. I also like to work early because, living in the desert, I will have hours and hours of harsh, untamed light every day unless I plan ahead. It’s just too retina-roastingly bright, too much of the time.

Edward Steichen taught himself light dynamics by spending months shooting the same object in the same setting. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of frames where nothing changed but the light. He put in the time taking scads of images he knew he would never use, just to give him a fuller understanding of how many ways there were to render an object. He benefited, zillions of frames later, when he applied that knowledge to subjects that did matter.

The greatest photographer of the 20th century became “that guy” because he was willing to take more misses than anyone else in the game, in order to get a higher yield of hits down the road.

Shooting just for a better understanding of light is the best photo school there is, and it’s cheap and easy in the digital age. No chemicals, no glass plates, nothing in the way but yourself and what you are willing to try.

I like the odds.

(follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye)