the Proto Photographer

Photography is an action, not a response

Amateur Photography

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Especially now, in the days of digital photography, it’s frighteningly common to witness someone, like myself, standing in front of an interesting-enough scene with a very expensive digital camera, clicking away frantically with brief pauses to fumble through the camera’s manual settings. There’s no intent in these pictures, just a blind hope that one out of the thousand images will be accidentally impressive enough to justify blowing their entire 2009 bonus on a dSLR.

To anyone who finds themselves frustrated and stuck in the scenario I’ve described, I would suggest a novel alternative: try to create a narrative with your next photo. Or construct a portrait with a friend that shows them how you truly see them. Choose an emotion or an idea that you want to convet and photograph it on your own terms. Set up your own lights, even if they’re just hall lamps. Choose your location and study it before you ever hit a shutter release.

It’s fun to walk around and let the universe present you with happy accidents. But conveying a thought or emotion through your photos is, more times than not, a profoundly rewarding end to what is, more times than not, a profoundly enlightening process.

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Just add photography juice

Amateur Photography

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[photo credit: Aaron Kaffen @ http://www.protophotographer.com]

I’d like to take a minute to explore the idea of photography as a social medium. Not in the sense that you can be a photographer at social events. But that photography, itself, can be an occasion to connect on several levels with other people.

My first real experience of this nature occurred at my friend, Emily’s, going away soiree. I’d been asked to put together a photo area during the event where guests could have their picture taken with the party girl, leaving an album of pictures that Emily could take with her to Chicago.

I’d spent $35 at the party store putting together the cheapest Prom backdrop I could imagine, and built a basic two-light studio area in the corner of the loft where the party would be. By the time guests started arriving, I’d dialed in the lighting, focus and camera settings so that the rest of the night could be a blur of mindless shutter releases. Blurry it was, but never mindless.

The evening got off to a special start when a guest came over to my make-shift studio with a bottle of whisky that had been covered in a fresh, masking-tape label that read “Photography Juice.” Then I hit my lights, and the guests took notice.

The two Lowell hot lights kept attracting the increasingly inebriated party-goers until a line had formed half-way across the loft. Emily stood in for the first thirty or so shots. But, after she left, the line kept growing into a swaying stream of revelers, full of energy and looking to act out in front of the camera. Slowly, my role began to shift from photographer, to performance artist. I would act out activities in pantomime to inspire movement in my subjects. They’d, in turn put on a show for me, sometimes funny, silly, other times awkward, sexy.

Emily would wander back over from time to time, always in a bit worse shape than the last. I’d goad her back in front of the lens to get another time-lapse frame chronicling her night.

Things went in very much that same manner for hours. It wasn’t until four or five in the morning that everyone started stumbling out. By that time, I’d taken over three hundred photos, met thirty or so new friends, kissed a couple of strangers and consumed most, if not all, of the Photography Juice.

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Taking better pictures … with a little more class

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[photo credit: Aaron Kaffen @ http://www.protophotographer.com]

There’s no shortage of ways in which one can spend money on photography. Thousands can be lost on lenses, bodies, lights, films … for some this is just a cost of doing business, some folks simply like their toys. But for others, the endless buying of “gear” is an attempt to become more “photographer”. That is to say, there’s a segment of, mostly amateur, photographers that’s convinced they could take better photos if they could just afford a nicer camera … or lens … or lights.

That these folks exist is hardly a surprise. But it’s curious that, in all of their spending, few of them will ever spend their hard-earned monies on a photography class. Why, after years and thousands of dollars spent on stuff, doesn’t it ever occur to them to have someone show them how to use it?

Sadly, as one of the aforementioned, I can answer that question quite simply. We’ve spent so much time and money trying to convince folks that we know what we’re doing with a camera that it’s become exceedingly difficult to walk into a classroom and admit to a real professional that we, in fact, know very little.

It’s a humbling prospect to absorb the looks of an instructor who, after a couple minutes of conversation, will quickly realize that you had no need to spend thousands on your Canon 5D. Who will, without much ado, expose you for the fraud that you are, and in front of a room full of people, no less.

How sad that we’ve let our limitations limit us? We let our potential as photographers languish under the weight of our egos. Going on, year after year, dollar after dollar, trying to find that magic lens or body that will take the place of simply going to a more knowledgeable source and asking, “How do I do this?”

What then to do? Go take a class. Any class. Pick the area of photography in which you’re most inept and find an instructor that’s brilliant at it. Walk proudly into their class and proclaim you ineptitude with a loud, clear voice. Then sit back and soak up the knowledge. It will, likely, be the best money you’ve ever spent on photography.

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When to put the camera down

Amateur Photography

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[photo credit: Aaron Kaffen @ http://www.protophotographer.com]

When should an amateur photographer put down the camera?

It’s a sad reality that many of the most interesting and photographable moments in your life simply should not involve any thoughts of lenses, shutter speeds or convenient surfaces off of which to bounce flashes. That doesn’t mean these events are off-limits to picture-taking. But it does mean that there’s a point during the events where the lens cap needs to pop back on, and a photographer needs to change back into their civies.

On a recent evening, I found myself among a mass of bike-riding revelers on the way to a secret party on the banks of the Columbia River. There was undeniable electricity, and I had my camera gear ready to capture it. By the time the party was going, I was running around frantically looking for good angles and prosperous lighting opportunities.

A few long-exposure shots later that I realized the experience I was missing. Hours were flying by, and I was busy capturing fractions of seconds. I’d snagged a few trophies. But the time had come to pack everything in my bag, and go be human with all of the other humans around me.
I knew that the time with my camera was well-spent. But that I couldn’t let the camera keep me from the life happening around me. A sense of relief washed through me when I zipped the bag closed. *That* was the time to put down my camera.

Whether you’re at a wedding, a political rally, the birth of a child, or just a rager on the beach, these kinds of supremely compelling subjects need to be respected as part of life, and not just a photo op. Depending on the situation, there may be a couple (or more) great opportunities to snap some shots. But remember to live in the moment as well.

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Photography, without fear of the cliché

Amateur Photography

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[photo credit: Aaron Kaffen @ http://www.protophotographer.com]

For most photographers, revolutionary work is as exhilarating as it is rare. By revolutionary, I mean to say that they’ve added something to the canon of photography that’s truly new and that sets them apart from the millions of photographers that have preceded them.

For amateur photographers, this kind of work is no less exhilarating, but, I might posit, is far more rare. Regardless they remain undaunted and shoot away at the ether waiting for their own moment of photographic revolution. And it’s in the spirit of that pursuit that they’ve learned to revile and vilify the banality of the cliché.

How, after all, can we be expected to uncover the new and heretofore undiscovered range of photographic expression if we’re taking pictures of the same tired subject matter that folks have been churning out for decades?

“Grainy black and white photos of punk shows? Seen it.” “The Eiffel Tour shot from the Parc du Champs de Mars? Just search for it on Flickr.” “Women leaning suggestively against random vehicles? Have you seen a magazine rack in the last sixty years without one?” In our quest for uniqueness, we shun these time-tested subjects and focus, instead, on more groundbreaking fare.

I can’t say that I totally disagree with this kind of content snobbery. If you’re simply recreating what others have already done, then the art of photography has been lost, and you’re working solely on technical acumen.

But in my own work, I’m finding a growing admiration for clichés. I’ve looked for opportunities to play with iconic ideas and warp them around my imagination. Or maybe just tweak them in subtle ways that only affect you in the subconscious.

It could be that I’ve accepted, with a few years under my belt, the reality that there’s nothing completely new under the sun. More than that, though, perhaps there’s an accomplishment in owning clichés. Maybe a mark can be made in the lineage of imagery, just by taking something so universally recognizable and bending it to your will.

After all, it’s easy to surprise someone by doing something they didn’t expect. It could be a greater effort to catch someone off guard with something that they thought they saw coming.

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The forest for the molecules

Technique

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[photo credit: Aaron Kaffen @ http://www.protophotographer.com]

In the contemporary wing of the Cleveland Art museum there’s a piece that consists of two square canvases, one painted white and the other a shade of gray. The white panel is hung squared to the room, while the other is at an angle, slightly overlapping the white.

A fifth-grade class once stood in front of that painting, listening to their teacher describe the artist’s background, when one smart-ass student blurted out, “I could do that!” Without much to-do, the teacher replied, “True. But the artist thought to do it first.”

I have a very clear memory of that moment. I had been the one to make the presumptuous statement, and I was the one who slunk away sheepishly at the accusation of the teachers terse response. It was a moment of humility.

But humility wasn’t the extent of the moment’s impact. The teacher said that the artist “thought to do it”. It dawned on me, for the first time, that the artist had to have thought up that painting. He had to purposefully choose the shade of gray, and he had to calculate the angle at which the panels hung on the wall. The lack of concrete subject matter only exaggerated the artist’s skillfulness as he drew a sense of calm and peace out of these perfectly-sized, perfectly angled and perfectly colored canvases.

Much like that piece hanging in the Cleveland Art Museum, photos can be a vehicle for purely abstracted shape and color. However, among amateur photographers, there seems to be an unnecessary reliance on subject matter to make photographs impactful. When a photo contains compelling content, say a crying child, elements like composition can be overlooked by the audience in light of the human connection.

To develop photographic skills of color and composition, it can be helpful to indulge a more abstract approach. Take photos that have no apparent subject matter. Shoot too close, or out of focus, anything to obfuscate your target to the point that your photo becomes nothing recognizable. Then you can focus on the lines, on the color and on the proportion that, when applied to the rest of your photography, will create intended beauty beyond the limits of your subject.

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Event photography for the rest of humanity

Amateur Photography

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[photo credit: Aaron Kaffen @ http://www.protophotographer.com]

Social situations, like parties, weddings, bars, have tremendous promise as fertile ground for interesting photography. Some people are interacting awkwardly, which, in and of itself, is interesting. Others are avoiding interaction awkwardly, even more interestingly. Beyond that, people are often drinking at these sorts of occasions, which generally amplifies the chance for interesting interactions.

But professional photographers will often look at these occasions and see a paying gig. It’s, after all, one of the few ways to make a decent living with a camera. There are a couple of basic issues that (usually) prevent these paying gigs from producing anything that we’d recognize as interesting.

First, a client will have expectations. A wedding photographer, for instance, is expected to get certain shots of the ceremony, the cake cutting, the first dance, etc. That won’t leave a lot of time to capture anything actually interesting, like the bride’s best friend sitting alone in the corner with a jealous glare on her face and a double shot of whisky.

Second, when someone is hired to photograph an event, they’re really being asked to capture images that give the *appearance* of a good time. This, generally, leads to photos that are pleasant. But rarely are they important or relatable to anyone who wasn’t a participant at the event.

The alternative is to view the next party/wedding/bar mitzvah you attend as an exercise in field photography. Seek out the party-goers that seem to be at their best or their worst, and try to capture it. This works best at events where you don’t know a lot of people, and there’s a modicum of tact required. So, if you’re the one throwing the party, it’s best not to be sneaking around with your Rolliflex trying to catch the guests passed out by the toilet.

Ultimately, this process is about taking pictures at events that would appeal to audiences who didn’t attend and who don’t know anyone who was there. It’s about capturing the reality of an event in a way that anyone could identify with, and in a way that complete strangers will find themselves drawn into.

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Tell a story with your photos

Equipment

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[photo credit: Aaron Kaffen @ http://www.protophotographer.com]

Tell a story with your photos.

To anyone who’s studied photography, this might sound basic. Narrative is at the heart of photography. Many of the most engaging photos capture not only the immediate image, but allude to the events leading up to and following the shutter release, whether real or imagined.

To many of us, though, that fall under the title of “amateur photographer”, the concept of instilling narrative has either never been introduced, or we’ve simply never attempted it. Instead, our photos focus on the nuts-and-bolts of color, composition, and technical prowess.

For my part, it wasn’t until I started shooting in a studio that I realized the power of narrative. Primarily because a studio, in and of itself, is nothing. It has no story.

When you’re strolling around downtown, stories are all around you, waiting to be captured. The best of those shots will convey to the viewer where they are in that story, what has led up to it, and what’s expected to follow. But even the worst will capture some part of the story. It’s hard not to.

A studio, though, demands that you craft your story from scratch.

Taking a beautiful picture of a man can be interesting. But if his clothes are dirty and worn in the image, you’ve given a glimpse into the man’s life leading up to the photo. If you give him a gold pocket watch as well, he could be presumed to have come from money at some point. Or maybe he’s a thief. Then if you have him grinning knowingly, the viewer can guess that the man knows his plight’s about to change.

With a few planned narrative elements, even on a plain, white background, the viewer can extrapolate an entire world around a simple picture of a man. The man can have a future and a past and a reason for the viewer to care about either. At that point, as the photographer, you’re no longer simply capturing reality, you’re creating new one.

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Photographic symbiosis

Amateur Photography

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[photo credit: collaboration with Anni Tracy @ http://www.annitracy.com/ and Aaron Kaffen @ http://www.protophotographer.com]

The prototypical photographer, as I’ve often imagined him or her, can best be described as one (wo)man heading out into the world with a camera. In this sense, my understanding of photography has taken on a Ayn Rand-ish quality where the photographer stands as solitary auteur (to borrow from film) whose individual drive and vision is enough to cram the entirety of truth and beauty into a single frame despite the relentless, oppressive mediocrity surrounding them.

With that as my standard, it’s no small wonder that I spent too many years walking around parks and cities, alone with my camera.

It wasn’t until the age of thirty that I attempted a collaborative photo shoot. But once I had, the prospect of shooting alone quickly lost its appeal. Working together with a painter, or a model, a makeup-artist or another photographer opened up new avenues of thinking and, from the new ideas, poured a mutual amplification of enthusiasm. As is so often the case, the multiplied creativities became more than the sum of their parts.

Mind you, I still enjoy solo photo stroll, in the sense that it has a meditative quality to it. But it’s not where I expect, or even want, my most meaningful photography to magically materialize. It’s just practice and preparation. I’m still waiting for the next creative mind to call me and say, “I’ve been thinking of a cool idea for a shoot. Whatcha doin’ tonight?”

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Amateur photography and the risk of being found out

Amateur Photography

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[photo credit:Aaron Kaffen @ http://www.protophotographer.com]

Taking photographs in public, especially photographs of people, and even more-so as an amateur, lends itself to a certain amount of doubt and introspection. 

First, you find yourself asking, “What if they see me?”   This question is especially worrisome as someone without any claim to the title of Professional Photographer, as, then, you’d at least have a reasonable answer.  Who would question your intent if you said, “I’m working on a piece for the Times” or “Part of my dissertation is to capture moments of true humanity”? 

Short of that, you’re just a creepy person with a camera who, by their estimation, has no right on earth to invade their privacy in this manner. 

Second, you start questioning what you’re doing there in the first place.  You didn’t set out that day to capture these people.  You don’t get paid for it.  Your human subjects simply boil down to an exercise in framing or composition or stealthiness. 

Before you know it, you’ve simultaneously experienced buyer’s remorse for every piece of probably-more-than-you-need camera equipment you’ve ever bought and start wondering if everyone around you knows that you’re a fraud who tries to make up for woefully lacking artistic integrity with an encyclopedic knowledge of Nikon camera bodies dating back to the early 60’s.  Of course they do.

Finally, you wonder if you ought to take another shot, and that’s when you see, in the periphery, a couple holding each other.  Like a Schrödinger experiment, the embrace is simultaneously and indiscernibly passionate and benign, happy and sad. 

The framing lines in your viewfinder become crosshairs.  The enraged crowd in the distance sounds like a perfect counterpoint.  So they’re worked into frame. The brick flooring beneath the couple dissolves into a negative space filled contrast and providence. 

Nobody notices the shutter.

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