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The Essence of Photography

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Rocky Nook, 2014. – 196 p.There is a lot more to photography than simply picking up a camera, pointing it toward something, and tripping the shutter. Achieving a great photograph requires thought and preparation, an understanding of the photographic process, and a firm grasp of how light and composition affect a photo. There must be personal involvement and personal expression. There must be experimentation, with the recognition that only a small percentage of experiments end successfully.In this book, best-selling author and world-renowned photographer and teacher Bruce Barnbaum explores these seldom-discussed issues by drawing upon his personal experiences and observations from more than 40 years of photographing and teaching. In addition to photographs, Bruce also uses painting, music, and writing, as well as the sciences and even business, to provide pertinent examples of creative thinking. These examples serve as stepping-stones that will lead you to your own heightened ability to see and be creative.Creativity is a topic that is almost wholly ignored in formal education because most instructors think that it cannot be taught or learned. To the contrary, Bruce has proven that photographic seeing and creativity can be taught, learned, and improved. This book expands on the ideas that are central to Bruce's method of teaching photography, which he has used in workshops for the past 41 years.
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Bruce Barnbaum, of Granite Falls, WA, began photographing as a hobbyist in the 1960s, and after four decades, it is still his hobby. Photography has also been his life’s work for the past 44 years.

Bruce’s educational background includes Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in mathematics from UCLA. After working for several years as a mathematical analyst and computer programmer for missile guidance systems, he abruptly left the field and turned to photography.

Bruce is recognized as one of the finest darkroom printers on this planet, for both his exceptional black-and-white work and his color imagery. He understands light to an extent rarely found and combines this understanding with mastery of composition, applying his knowledge to an extraordinarily wide range of subject matter.

Bruce has authored several books, some of which have become classics. His early publication of The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression (first published in 1994 and going out of print in 2002) was updated, revamped, and newly released in late 2010 by Rocky Nook. This new book became an instant bestseller and is sure to remain a classic for years to come.

Bruce has been an active environmental advocate for more than three decades, both independently and through his involvement and leadership with organizations such as the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, the Mountain Loop Conservancy, Futurewise, and the North Cascades Conservation Council.

Bruce Barnbaum,

Publisher: Gerhard Rossbach

Copyeditor: Jocelyn Howell

Layout and Type: Petra Strauch,

Cover Design: Helmut Kraus,

Cover Photo: Bruce Barnbaum

Printer: Tara TPS

Printed in Korea

ISBN 978-1-937538-51-4

1st Edition

© 2015 by Bruce Barnbaum

All photography © Bruce Barnbaum (unless otherwise noted)

Rocky Nook Inc.

802 East Cota Street, 3rd Floor

Santa Barbara, CA 93103

Image on page 35 used by permission.

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941

Photograph by Ansel;  Adams

Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona

© 2013 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Barnbaum, Bruce, 1943-

The essence of photography : seeing and creativity / Bruce Barnbaum. -- 1st edition.

pages cm

ISBN 978-1-937538-51-4 (paperback)

1. Photography--Vocational guidance. 2. Photography--Technique. 3. Composition (Photography) I. Title.

TR154.B37 2014



All rights reserved. No part of the material protected by this copyright notice may be reproduced or utilized in any form, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of the publisher.

Many of the designations in this book used by manufacturers and sellers to distinguish their products are claimed as trademarks of their respective companies. Where those designations appear in this book, and Rocky Nook was aware of a trademark claim, the designations have been printed in caps or initial caps. All product names and services identified throughout this book are used in editorial fashion only and for the benefit of such companies with no intention of infringement of the trademark. They are not intended to convey endorsement or other affiliation with this book.

While reasonable care has been exercised in the preparation of this book, the publisher and author assume no responsibility for errors or omissions, or for damages resulting from the use of the information contained herein or from the use of the discs or programs that may accompany it.

This book is printed on acid-free paper.

To you, the reader,

Seeking meaning and creativity.

In hopes that this book

May be of assistance.

Bruce Barnbaum

31417 Mountain Loop Highway

Granite Falls, Washington 98252


Phone or Fax: (360) 691-4105

Table of Contents



Discovering and Developing Personal Interests

Photographic Rhythm

How Your Equipment Affects Your Photographic Rhythm


Finding Your Photographic Interests

The Starting Point of Photographic Seeing and Creativity

Compositional and Lighting Considerations



Example Images: Applying Compositional and Lighting Considerations

Eliminating Problems in Advance with Careful Looking and Seeing

Improving Your Seeing with Film

Print Size

Getting Feedback and Responding to It

The Importance of Feedback in Shaping My Work and Yours

Exercise Completed


Personal Work versus Professional Work

Pleasing Yourself versus Pleasing Others

Professional Necessities versus Personal Expression

Personal Satisfaction versus Photographic Sales

The Impediments to New and Different Work

Breaking Barriers

Photographs versus Fine Art Photographs

The Power of Photography

Emotional Effects of Photography

The Psychological High of Photography


Inspiration from Daily Life

Photographic Inspiration Near and Away from Home

Inspiration from Literature

Inspiration from Music

Interpretation of Realism and Abstraction

Color in Realism and Abstraction

The Importance of Defining Your Expressive Goals

We See Similar Patterns in Different Subjects


Creativity Requires Preparation

What Drives Creativity?

“Know Thyself”

Applying Insight and Intuition to Photography

Trusting Your Intuition

Finding Opportunities for Creativity

Personal Examples of Creativity

Creativity in Unexpected Places

Moving Ahead with Creativity

Pushing Yourself versus Pressuring Yourself

Putting Everything to Use


Photography Workshops

Misguided Education in the Arts

The Benefits of Photographing with Others

Reviewing the Work of Others and Vice Versa

Finding Photographic Associates

Openness from Instructors


Using Technique for Creative and Educational Purposes

Combining Known Ideas in New and Creative Ways

You Cannot Rely on Good Technique Alone

Materials, Equipment, and their Openings to Creativity


Working with Light

Cedar Breaks, Winter

Rooftops, Heidelberg

Photographing My Passion; Finding Yours

Photography as a Creative Art Form

Defining My Goals; Defining Yours



FOR THE PAST SEVERAL YEARS I have been conducting a workshop titled “The Art of Seeing and Creating Through the Camera.” In many ways it’s a scary topic because so many people feel that creativity cannot be taught or learned. That may or may not be true—I doubt that it can be proved or disproved—but it is a certainty that creativity can be properly promoted or sadly squelched.

Let’s start with a simple example. In elementary school, children draw pictures of their family with crayons. A teacher who is supportive of creativity may look at one of those crayon drawings and ask, “Oh, is that your mom, and your dad, and is that your brother or sister...or is that you?” That question can encourage creativity on the part of the child. A teacher who squelches creativity may look at the same crayon drawing and ask, “Is your family really all green?”

Now, the child may have chosen a green crayon because he or she liked the color, or it happened to be the first crayon that came out of the box, or perhaps for no reason at all. But the first question encourages the child, while the second one implies that the kid did something wrong, something that needs to be addressed and corrected. The second question squelches creativity; the first helps to promote it.

My intent in my “Seeing and Creating” workshops, and now in this book, is to promote good seeing, to promote personal intuition, and to promote creativity. If it actually teaches any of those things, so much the better. I won’t make the claim that it does, but I’ll cling to the hope that it may. I approach those workshops, as well as this book, as more of a facilitator than an instructor. I have much to learn about creativity, and that’s part of the impetus for the workshop and for this book. I’m always looking for ways to expand my own creative abilities.

I offer no formulas for success because none exist. This book is not meant to be followed in a step-by-step manner, as would be the case with a camera manual or instructional book. Instead, my hope is that the ideas discussed within the book may stimulate further thought on your part that can lead to new, creative approaches.

Because I have more than 40 years of experience in photography—doing my own work throughout that entire period, doing commercial work for the first 15 years, and teaching workshops for nearly my entire photographic career—I feel that my experiences and observations could be useful to others.

Some readers may view these experiences as little more than personal anecdotes that have little relevance to anyone but me. If so, ask yourself how you learn? You learn from books and lectures, but much of what you learn comes from personal experiences. Therefore, I feel that important lessons can be learned from those experiences if they are delved into as more than mere anecdotes, but as essential learning experiences, not only for me, but for a far wider audience. I present these experiences throughout the book in hopes that they can be instructive, but with a recognition that they might be viewed as little more than personal anecdotes. I hope the instructional aspects greatly outweigh the anecdotal.

So, here is what I intend for this book to be about, and what I intend for it not to be about:

It’s about expressing yourself through photography in a way that is meaningful and even lasting.

It’s about using photography as a visual research laboratory, whether you’re using traditional film and a darkroom, digital sensors and computers, a combination of the two, or anything else that can lead to imagery.

It’s about visual exploration, experimentation, and personal satisfaction.

It’s about encountering a scene, created or found, and recognizing the potential for personal expression within it.

It’s about creating photographic imagery that may have the lasting power of an Ansel Adams, an Edward or Brett Weston, a Cornell Capa, an Imogen Cunningham, or a Sabastião Salgado.

It’s not about technical ideas that you can find in other books.

It’s not about making images simply because you can with the tools or apps at your disposal.

Finally, it is a book that will require time, effort, and dedication on your part to put into practice. If you love photography as much as I do, you’ll put in the time and effort necessary.

Driveway Ice

A puddle on my driveway, frozen solid during a winter cold snap

Chapter 1

Finding Your Groove

IT’S EASY TO LOOK AT THINGS. We do it constantly without giving it much thought. It gets us through the day. But how often do you stop to really see what you’re looking at? By this I mean seeing something in depth, looking at it long enough and intently enough that you not only see that it’s there, but you actually study it and learn something about it.

In my book The Art of Photography, I discuss the difference between an average person looking at a crime scene and a seasoned detective looking at the same scene. An average person may see a room with some obvious blood stains, but a detective would see a multitude of clues, some of which he would claim to be obvious. The average person would probably miss most of those clues entirely. This illustrates the difference between casual looking-and-seeing and in-depth looking-and-seeing. It also shows that there is a difference between an experienced and an inexperienced viewer. The detective has experience. He wouldn’t have spotted all of the obvious clues his first day on the job, but years of experience have sharpened his vision and taught him to look for details that the casual observer—or even the first-year detective—could easily miss.

A photographer cannot be a casual observer. A photographer has to look for the relationships within a scene, whether that scene is a studio setup, a street scene, a landscape, an architectural setting, or any other scene you can conceive of. A photographer has to see the relationships among the numerous objects in the scene in terms of form, line, tone, and color, and he must see those relationships within the three-dimensional vista in front of his eyes. He must recognize how forms, lines, tones, and colors in the foreground work with those in the middle distance and in the background. A photographer has to notice that moving six inches to the right may create a better set of form relationships in the three-dimensional field in front of his eyes. A photographer has to see how a portrait subject may stand out against either a black or white background, or if he or she would perhaps look better against a more complex interior, exterior, or landscape background that may say more about the person than a simple, nondescript background.

A photographer has to see how the sunlight streaming through a dense forest could make a complete mess of a scene, negating any feeling of depth by turning everything into a blotchy cacophony of brilliant sunlight and deep shade randomly speckled on the trunks, branches, and foliage. But by simply looking in a different direction, that same light may produce clear separations between, let’s say, the backlit trees and the sunlight streaming between them. A photographer has to recognize that every type of light has its merits and its problems. Light that is perfect for one type of scene may be inappropriate for another.

Recognizing the difference between light that enhances a scene and light that detracts from the scene takes experience. Because a camera—whether it’s a traditional film camera or a digital camera—records only light, the photographer has to learn to see light, and understand how light brings out or destroys the lines, forms, tonalities, colors, dimensionality, and all other aspects of a scene. Learning to see light requires experience because we’re really geared to see objects. That’s what we’ve done since we were born. A baby learns to see mommy, daddy, and other things of importance as he grows, but he tends not to see mommy or anything else as a set of light levels. He doesn’t learn to see relationships of lines or forms or shapes—for example, the oval of mommy’s face in relationship to the oval of daddy’s face—rather he learns to see and distinguish the features of the face itself. So learning to see objects in a given scene as light values and lines, forms, and shapes, and learning to see the relationships among them, is clearly not a natural act. You really have to learn to see photographically.

This is difficult because our eyes do not see the way a camera sees. As you peruse a scene with your eyes, your irises open a bit to let in more light from the darkest parts of the scene, and close a bit to moderate the intensity from the brightest parts of the scene. So, in essence, you’re viewing every scene at multiple apertures. But when you snap the shutter on a camera, the entire scene is recorded at the single aperture you set. Unless you understand the technical aspects of controlling contrast via the process you have chosen (traditional film exposure or digital capture), you may lose a lot of the information that you expect to see in your image.

The technical side of how you can fully record the scene is quite a challenge in itself. This is difficult not only in daylight, when you could be dealing with intensely bright sunlight and deep shadows, but also at night in a typical room in your home that is lit by a single lamp. In the latter situation, the inverse square law of light means that people farther from the lamp are much, much darker than those close by. You may not even notice the difference because your eye adjusts to a remarkable degree as it pans from the person closest to the lamp to the one farthest from it, but the drop in light is dramatic in the recorded image.

Complicating this issue further is the fact that a camera has a single lens, while your eyes see every scene with binocular vision, meaning that your left and right eye combine to recognize depth, which is not possible with a camera. Try looking at a complex scene with one eye closed and you’ll see that the scene tends to lose a large degree of depth. If you want to convey a sense of depth in a photograph, you have to learn how the one-eyed camera sees the scene under various types of light, and recognize which type of light helps bring out that depth.

Another tricky factor is that if your goal is to make black-and-white photographs, you have to transform all colors to their equivalent gray level. While a red cardinal may stand out clearly in color against the deep green foliage of the tree it’s sitting in, both the bird and the leaves may be exactly the same shade of gray in black-and-white. You have to learn how to use filters when making the image to separate the two colors if you’re using film, or how to separate them in a photo-editing program later if your choice is digital. I mention this because whenever anyone brings up the names of the greatest photographers in photography’s nearly 200-year history, this list is still dominated by black-and-white photographers: Ansel Adams, Edward and Brett Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Sabastião Salgado, August Sander, Julia Margaret Cameron, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and so many more. This is not just because photography existed for nearly a century before color film was introduced, but because many more outstanding black-and-white photographs have been produced even after the advent of color film...and of course, well before the introduction of digital processes.

None of this is easy to learn. Amazingly, most folks feel that if you have a camera in hand—whether it’s an old fashioned, large-format view camera like one I use or one of the cell phone cameras that virtually everyone in the world has today—you’re a photographer. But that’s like saying that everyone with a pen in hand is a writer. It’s just not so.

Photography can be deceptively difficult. Some people may have innate talent, and it comes more easily to them. We’re not all created equal, as much as we like to believe that statement. Some of us are tall, others are not; some of us are brilliant, others are lacking; some of us are athletic, others are not; why, if you look around, you’ll notice that some are men and about an equal number are women. Now, I firmly believe that we should all be treated equally and judged equally, despite the fact that we’re really not created equal at all. Bringing this back to photography, some can learn to be outstanding photographers, and some can do it quicker than others, but it takes time to learn. And doing it well requires both learning and practice. So whatever innate talent you bring with you, it’s going to take some hard work to achieve your goals.

I have heard time and time again from people inquiring about my workshops, or from first time students, that they “have a good eye.” Some people do. Most of the time they really mean that they can identify a beautiful scene. And while I hate to burst their bubble, it turns out that virtually anyone can spot a beautiful scene. Very few people going into Yosemite Valley for the first time fail to notice its beauty. But most people take this to mean that they have a good eye. Not so.

Having a good eye means that you can recognize relationships between forms that almost jump out at you when you look at a scene from one location, but that don’t appear to be quite as strong from a slightly different location. Having a good eye means that you can recognize when certain lighting or weather conditions make a scene quite extraordinary, whereas other lighting or weather conditions render it rather ordinary. Having a good eye means you can quickly spot an unusual and particularly interesting scene on a busy street corner in the midst of the typical nondescript hustle and bustle that occurs most of the time. Having a good eye means you can see when a specific type and direction of lighting on a person’s face, perhaps coupled with an interesting turn of the head, makes a powerful portrait, rather than the typical portrait we see from most commercial studios, or the portraits of “important people” giving an “important speech” shown on page 6 of your daily newspaper.

To create good photographs, you have to learn to see the light and the relationships within a scene. You have to learn to see with your two eyes the way a camera sees, with a single eye and a single aperture setting. It would be great if the camera could learn to see the way you do, but unfortunately, that’s not an option.

Figure 1–1: Ericsson Crags, Sierra Nevada

The awesome granite walls and summits were what drew me to the high mountains for hiking and backpacking. Photography began as a pleasant hobby; nevertheless, it was important and meaningful.

Discovering and Developing Personal Interests

As you learn the ropes of seeing light and seeing relationships, you also have to find both your subject matter and your rhythm. Ansel Adams was drawn to the land, and more specifically to the mountains, and his best photographs are undoubtedly his powerful mountain and landscape images. He may have been a good portrait photographer, but it’s unlikely he would have been as good as he was with landscapes, and he probably wouldn’t have built the reputation he did. August Sander may have been a good landscape photographer, but it is his portraits of working-class Germans that are astounding, perturbing, penetrating images. These photographers and all of the other great photographers were drawn to specific subject matter that had heightened meaning to them, and they walked away from other subjects. That’s why their work is so outstanding.

I started photographing in the early 1960s when I was still a college student. My goal was to show the places where I backpacked in California’s Sierra Nevada. I was drawn to the power of the Sierra’s huge granite walls topping out at summits above 14,000 feet (figure 1–1), the immense canyons (figure 1–2), the thundering rivers and waterfalls, the serene meadows and lakes (figure 1–3), the giant sequoia and sugar pine forests, and the innumerable little things that you can never expect in advance (figure 1–4). I began recording the scenes on 35mm color slides, and then with larger format cameras.

In the late 1960s, I was working as a computer programmer and a friend who worked down the hall from me asked if I’d like to learn how to shoot and develop black-and-white negatives and prints. My initial reaction was, “Hell, no!” I wanted to be in the luminous mountains, not in a dingy darkroom. Somewhere along the way I changed my mind and asked him to show me what it entailed. I found that it really wasn’t terribly difficult, nor was it horribly dingy. I immediately bought a larger camera, somehow not wanting to shoot the small 35mm-negative size, and began photographing the landscape in black and white.

I was further drawn to landscape images when I looked at photographs by others, especially those of Ansel Adams, whose images seemed to be more powerful, more vivid, and more spectacular than any I had ever seen. His work came closest to depicting the landscape—specifically the mountains—as I saw it on my hikes. So in 1970, I took a two-week workshop that Adams conducted in Yosemite. I knew my interest: mountain landscapes. I felt I could learn to photograph this subject matter best from the person who I thought was doing it best.

Shortly after that workshop, I quit my programming job in the defense industry and went into photography. I had to turn to commercial architectural photography to stay afloat financially, but my personal interest remained with landscapes, which I continued to photograph whenever I could find the time.

Sometime during the mid- to late-1970s my interests began to expand and I started to become interested in more abstract images; not in place of landscapes, but in addition to them (figure 1–5). I immediately ran into a serious roadblock when I was met with a negative response from those who knew my photographic work best, who would look at one of my more abstract pieces and derisively ask, “Is this the same Bruce Barnbaum I used to know?” That response was enough to dissuade me from showing the image or even producing more abstract works—it’s likely I just lacked the self-confidence to follow my own star—but I kept feeling the tug to do something a little more abstract.

All doubts vanished in August of 1979 when my workshop co-instructors, Ray McSavaney and John Sexton, and I took our workshop students to the home of Brett Weston in Carmel, California. (I started teaching workshops in 1975.) During this visit, Brett showed us an astonishing array of his images, most of which were abstract. I’ll never forget walking out of his home and having one of the students grab me by the shoulder and ask, “What did you think of Brett’s work?” I answered, “Nobody in this group got more out of it than I did.” I knew then and there that his work had a profound influence on me.

Figure 1–2: Tehipite Valley, North Fork of the Kings River

Viewed from Crown Valley, the gaping chasm seemed to go down endlessly, with the polished granite walls rising up in a rhythmic series of spikes. It seems to me that anyone seeing a sight like this would be overwhelmed by its magnificence.

Brett Weston had kicked the door of abstraction open for me. I realized that he had freed me up to do what I really wanted to do. What made that transition possible for me was an instant change in my attitude toward abstraction. Up until that time, the skeptical and negative reactions I had received from friends made me feel that presenting an abstract image was irritating to those who couldn’t quickly identify the subject matter. But after seeing Brett’s work, my attitude changed entirely. I now felt as if I were presenting a puzzle—a challenge, if you will—to the viewer. I would then step back to allow the viewer to solve the puzzle, or not. Instead of answering questions with a photograph, I was asking questions. I had suddenly determined that both were equally valid. If some people were irritated with abstraction, so be it; that was their problem, not mine.

Figure 1–3: Indian Paintbrush, Evolution Valley

By placing my 4×5 camera on the ground in the meadow’s grass and flowers rather than on a tripod, I was able to create a gauzy, dreamlike feel in this photograph of the delicate Indian Paintbrush that dotted the meadow. It was a revelation that I could use the camera in an unorthodox manner to achieve a feel that I had never quite seen before.

Figure 1–4: Chipmunk Kiss

While sitting around the campsite, I would often hold my 35mm camera just in case something interesting happened nearby. In this case, it was amazing. I can’t really say what they were doing, but it sure looked like a love affair to me.

On January 1, 1980, just four and a half months after that extraordinary visit to Brett Weston’s home, I walked into Antelope Canyon, a place so abstract that I never could have imagined its existence. Without hesitation I began to photograph within its narrow confines. Just six months after that, on my way to Norway, where I had been invited to teach a workshop for a hand-picked group of professional photographers, I “discovered” the English cathedrals. Prior to leaving home, I would have said that I had no interest in photographing churches, but these structures were so impressive, so monumental, so overwhelming, and so compelling to me that I felt I had no choice but to photograph them.

Within the short time span of six months, my interests expanded from landscapes alone to abstracts, and then to monumental ancient architecture. Throughout my photographic career I have continued to expand upon existing interests without losing my previous interests. This has worked well for me. Others take a very different approach. Some start with a single interest and remain focused on it throughout their career. Some skip from interest to interest, dropping the previous one as they latch onto a new one. Some start with a variety of interests, and gradually narrow them down to one or two interests that remain with them for a lifetime.

Figure 1–5: Dune Ridges at Sunrise, Death Valley

The first abstract photograph I made (in 1976) was greeted with responses that were less than enthusiastic from my photographic friends. I remained hesitant to show it until I saw Brett Weston’s photography in 1979. His images were exceedingly abstract, and entirely wonderful. From that viewing onward, I felt freed to show abstract images.

Which is the correct approach? Which is wrong? It turns out they are all correct. None of them is more correct than another. The approach you use has to work for your interests. What has worked well for me may not be good for you, or for another photographer, and vice versa. This is all part of finding your interests and your groove, and it has nothing to do with anyone else’s groove. It’s recognizing that your interests can change, expand, or become more specific. It’s understanding that you are the only one who can determine what you want to do photographically. Only you can determine how you want your photograph to look, what you want to show, what you want to avoid, what you want to emphasize, and what you want to de-emphasize—in other words, what you want your photograph to say. It’s yours, and you’ll find your proper voice and groove in time.

Some photography instructors try to push a student toward a single area of interest. I don’t agree with this approach. We’re multifaceted people. We have more than one interest in life; why can’t we have more than one interest in our photography? As a longtime workshop instructor, I have never tried to push a student into a single area of interest. I may point out the realm in which I feel a student is doing his strongest work, and encourage him to continue to pursue that realm, but I feel that photographers should always look toward other realms as possible wellsprings of inspiration. I see no problem with your pursuit of multiple areas of interest if they turn out to be areas of real passion for you. Why walk away from any of them? Only you can determine your interests, and sometimes one may come as a complete surprise, just as the cathedrals of England did for me. Of course, my discovery of Antelope Canyon and other slit canyons were even more surprising, but that was simply because I never could have imagined places like those existed.

Photographic Rhythm

This leads to a key point I wish to discuss in this chapter: your rhythm. Some photographers have to go to an area, explore it, get to know it, and learn how to depict it over time before they can produce their best images. It’s a process of growing and learning. I’ve seen several photographers go through this evolution, where their first images were not terribly interesting, even though they were falling all over themselves with enthusiasm for the subject matter. But as time went on, they tuned in and their images became progressively more interesting, more refined, and more insightful. They found their groove, and then they moved through it with immense power, grace, and finesse.

Harrison Branch, the long-time chair of the photography department at Oregon State University, will explore a location that is new to him without any camera in hand. If he finds an area to be of interest, he will go back, again without a camera, to gain deeper insights into the location and its nuances. Finally, after several visits, he’ll take his camera with him to photograph the area.

Harrison’s approach is very different from mine. In fact, I could not work the way Harrison works. At workshops we’ve taught together, we have discussed our differences with our students. I generally see things and respond quickly and strongly, or I really don’t respond at all. When visiting a new area, I tend to make my most powerful images right from the start (figure 1–6, my first exposure in Antelope Canyon, 1980—utterly abstract and very bold.). As I continue to explore the possibilities within the region, I work my way toward finding more subtle imagery (figure 1–7, my final exposure in Antelope Canyon, 1998). In fact, if I had to study an area at length before bringing a camera in for photography, I think I’d lose a great deal of my spontaneity and enthusiasm for the place. I don’t think my imagery would be as strong. I have to work quickly, responding to my gut feelings. I can’t put them off until some time in the future.

Figure 1–6: Circular Chimney, Antelope Canyon

The first negative I exposed in Antelope Canyon, just five months after seeing Brett Weston’s work. It is entirely abstract, having no sense of scale or direction, and even the subject matter is unclear without an explanation.

Figure 1–7: Layers, Antelope Canyon

The final negative I exposed in Antelope Canyon in 1998. It’s still abstract, because the place itself is abstract, but perhaps not as abstract as my initial image. I have not visited Antelope Canyon since then, due to the overcommercialization of it; it is too sacred to me to see it treated as it is today.

Let me expand on this further. It’s a certainty that my lifelong interest and academic background in the forces of nature—from those of the subatomic world to those of the cosmic—informed my instantaneous reaction to Antelope Canyon. I immediately saw its swirling lines of interbedded sandstone as a representation of a force field, similar to the lines of magnetic force created when iron filings are scattered on paper and a magnet is held below the paper. To me, Antelope Canyon wasn’t a narrow, eroded sandstone canyon; it was a force field. I didn’t have to think about it; it was an immediate reaction to the place I had walked into. I didn’t have to go into the canyon several times to fully grasp my reaction to it.

Beyond that, I immediately recognized that the extremely high contrast within the canyon necessitated a completely different technical approach than the one I had employed and taught in my workshops up to that point. Rather than exposing film to the darkest area where I wanted to maintain detail, I exposed for the brightest highlight within the image, which was well over ten zones (stops) brighter than the darkest regions. So, not only was my visceral reaction to Antelope Canyon immediate, but it was accompanied by an entirely new technical approach to deal with the unprecedented lighting situation within the canyon.

I had virtually the same reaction to the cathedrals of England, which I encountered just six months later. It wasn’t as instantaneous as my reaction to Antelope Canyon, but I quickly saw the cathedrals as allegories on infinity (my math and science background reared its head again), with column after column, vault after vault, and archway after archway, going on forever (figure 1–8). The lovely small town churches had no such lure for me. I needed the size and complexity of the cathedrals to fully elucidate these concepts.

Figure 1–8: Retrochoir, Wells Cathedral

A seemingly infinite number of columns, arches, and vaults created the musical and mathematical settings that, for me, defined the English cathedrals. Unmarred by colorful paintings, the integrity of the structures themselves showed through clearly. I would have never guessed that I could have been attracted to these structures photographically, but they proved too irresistible to me to avoid.

Figure 1–9: Machu Picchu in the Mist

The first negative I exposed at the famous Inca Ruins in Peru. The ruins are only a small portion of the image, most of which is taken up by the mountains and clouds that I felt were its most dramatic aspect. Although I had seen many photographs of Machu Picchu before seeing it in person, the impact of its surroundings made it seem as if I had never seen a photograph of it. So I wanted to show the surroundings, relegating the ruins to little more than a place setting within the dreamlike swirl of high mountains and clouds.

Throughout my career I have found that my initial reaction to a new area almost invariably yields my strongest images. Others seem to agree, for they generally gravitate to my first exposures. In 2009 I was invited to teach a workshop in Peru, which included field sessions in the Peruvian Andes and at the famed Inca site of Machu Picchu. It was exciting and highly successful, and I was invited back each of the next two years. At the end of the first year, the man who invited me, Adam Weintraub, asked if I would be willing to send him a 16×20-inch mounted print of one of my Peruvian photographs that he could display on a wall in his bed and breakfast in Cuzco, which is the starting location for most of his workshops in Peru. I sent him about 20 black-and-white jpeg images, all of which I photographed with my 4×5 film camera, but later scanned and saved as digital files. Half of the photographs were Peruvian landscape images and the other half were from Machu Picchu. Adam chose one landscape and one Machu Picchu image, saying he would be equally pleased with either one. Interestingly, the landscape image was my first exposed negative in Peru and the Machu Picchu image was my first exposure at that site (figure 1–9).

I don’t know why I tend to see strongly from the very start, but I do. I find this tendency time and time again. Which approach is right; my quick response to an area or Harrison’s deliberate analysis of an area? They’re both right. Harrison’s is perfect for him. He knows his rhythm and he works best in that manner. I know mine, and I work best within my manner of seeing. You have to find your own. It’s quite likely that Harrison’s approach and my approach are at the extremes, and others’ lie somewhere in between. That’s fine. You have to work at your own speed and leisure, and with your own rhythm. Doing anything else throws you off your game. You have to find your comfort zone.

Despite the fact that my initial response tends to be my strongest, that’s not always the case. It’s not a rule for me, and I’m not bound by it. The perfect counterexample is my ongoing photographic study of the sand dunes in Death Valley (figures 4–1 through 4–3, and 7–10 through 7–12). Amazingly, each time I return I find new and fascinating imagery. As long as I keep finding new and exciting things to photograph there, the project will continue to grow. My recent imagery strikes me as strongly as my initial image, and my best may be sometime in the future. I’m leaving that possibility open.

How Your Equipment Affects Your Photographic Rhythm

I started using a large format camera (4×5) in 1969 when I was still working as a math analyst at The Aerospace Corporation in the Los Angeles area. I still use it today, and I love using it. It forces me to look more carefully. I have to first explore my compositional options—sometimes very quickly, but always quite carefully—before setting up my camera in the right spot.

Figure 1–10: Llama in Fog, Machu Picchu

Fog that was so heavy it turned to a light mist filled Machu Picchu as I climbed its stairs and looked back toward its entry area, only to see a llama calmly chewing its cud and looking over the enchanted scene. Not knowing how long the fog would remain, or how long the llama would stay there, I grabbed my digital camera rather than my 4×5 in order to record this magical moment before it disappeared.

By contrast, I’ve seen people using 35mm cameras as if they were using a rapid-fire pistol, shooting off one image after another with little forethought as to the optimum camera position or any other variety of concerns. And today’s digital shooters often seem to use the camera like a machine gun, reeling off a virtual movie roll of images and searching for the best frame at a later date, assuming that in the midst of all that manure, there’s got to be a pony somewhere. This approach makes you much more of an editor than a photographer. And while I’m certain that there are times when this could yield a wonderful image, I tend to think that photography actually requires some forethought and planning. Many of history’s great photographers shot fewer images in a year than some of today’s digital shooters pump out in a day.

Figure 1–11: Beetle on Deck

This large beetle (over an inch long) was slowly walking across our front deck when I first saw it, and I immediately noticed the beetle’s stripes and the wood grain stripes of the deck. I quickly ran into the house, grabbed my digital camera, ran back to the deck, and got down on my knees to photograph this remarkable bug before it left the scene. It was moving so slowly that I thought it was injured. I was as fascinated by the beetle as I was by the nearly 90-degree angle between the beetle’s striped pattern and that of the wood grain. It was perfect. I made a couple of exposures using the macro mode, before it suddenly—and very unexpectedly—flew away, first flying straight up into my face, scaring the hell out of me!

In many ways, digital photography has turned the usual approach to photography on its head. It used to be that a photographer would look and then shoot, taking time to compose the image and look for important relationships within the scene before tripping the shutter, even if it was as rapid-fire as street photography. Today, most digital photographers shoot and then look. They expose the image first, then look at the display on the camera back to see what they captured. Digital cameras make it easy to proceed in that manner because if you’re not pleased with the image you’ve captured, you can simply delete it. You can’t do that with film, where the exposure is permanent and you have to move on to the next frame. Digital photography certainly frees you up to do more shooting, but it’s a double-edged sword because it also allows you to do a lot of really bad shooting.

That’s not what I would call shooting in a rhythm; it’s wishing and hoping, pressing a button and seeing what happened later. There’s no personal rhythm there. It’s pure quantity, with the hope that some quality may be hidden within. I have to admit to deleting a few digital exposures along the way myself, but almost exclusively because of things such as contrast that I originally felt was within the range of the exposure but turned out to be too high, or other such issues that I didn’t expect; not so much because of poor composition or a serious distraction within the image (though there have been a few such obvious mistakes).

I now use digital procedures for all my color photography because I feel that digital technology has surpassed traditional film technology. I do not see the same superiority with black-and-white photography, an area in which I also love the traditional film and darkroom process. One of the obvious advantages of shooting digitally is that it allows me to photograph quickly, which is an option that is not available with my 4×5 camera. This has given me a degree of freedom that I don’t have with the 4×5, yet my time spent working with a large format camera has given me a sense of discipline that I find too often missing for most of today’s digital users. I always look for the compositional elements first, even if it’s a very brief look (figures 1–10 and 1–11). While it would have been possible to make the image of the llama at Machu Picchu with my 4×5 camera—the llama and fog both remained in place for quite some time—I was able to move quickly because I had a digital camera with me. I didn’t have to worry about the animal disappearing while I was setting up my large format camera. On the other hand, it would have been impossible to use my large format camera to make the image of the beetle because the beetle was in constant, if slow, motion, and it flew away within a minute or so—not nearly enough time to set up my large format camera.

Perhaps I’m still in the process of finding my rhythm with the digital camera. Perhaps I’ve already arrived at that rhythm. It certainly allows me to work far more quickly than I can with my 4×5 camera, yet I have no desire to move away from large format imagery. I do not believe that art is an instant creation; it takes forethought. Although working with a large camera on a tripod takes time, when I look at the work produced by those who came before me, over a period of more than a century using large format cameras, I feel I’m part of a recognized tradition that still remains valid. After all, nobody would say that Paul Strand or Ansel Adams or either of the Westons or any number of other large-format photographers would have done better with digital technology. And the slow, careful methods used with the large format camera meshes seamlessly with the thoughtful approach that I feel is a necessary element of fine art. Some of these methods spill over into my digital work. I firmly believe that well-conceived digital work is as valid an art form as any other photographic approach.

I’ll have more to say throughout this book, especially in chapter 7, about what I feel are the benefits of using a digital camera. It turns out that virtually any camera has its strong points and can be used effectively for creative, expressive purposes. You are not going to jump to using every possible type of camera as a creative outlet for you, just as you’re not going to employ every possible rhythm as a valid working method for you, but it’s worth trying a few of each to find both the equipment that works for you and the workflow that meshes with your own inner rhythms.

Monte Cristo Grade Road Sunlight

The road across the river from my home turned to magic as the fog cleared on an early autumn morning

Chapter 2

Your Interests and Your Imagery

IF YOU ARE GOING TO ENJOY PHOTOGRAPHY and produce meaningful images you’ll have to find subject matter that interests you, that excites you, that draws you in and involves you. I was particularly lucky in this respect because I already enjoyed hiking in the mountains, which drew me into photography, so my initial area of photographic interest was predetermined.

You may not be that lucky. Perhaps you are interested in the idea of photography because you’ve seen a number of photographs that you like, and you want to produce some yourself. Perhaps you’ve been photographing for years with a degree of pleasure, but you want to improve the quality of your work. You may have picked up this book hoping that it could help you along that path, which is actually my goal in writing the book. So let’s try to travel down that path together.

First, however, I want to engage you in a short five- to ten-minute exercise. I believe that this can be a very useful, perhaps even pivotal, exercise. Please pull out a sheet of paper and a pencil, or your computer, and list your three favorite photographers, followed by a sentence or short paragraph explaining what it is about each photographer that you like most. If you only have two favorites, just list two. If you have more than three who are all real favorites, make the list a bit longer, but don’t let it get too long; confine it to your real favorites. Because I think this is an important enough exercise, I urge you to put this book aside for a while, give the issue a bit of thought, and then write down your choices and your reasoning. I’ll return to this at the end of the chapter to explain why this exercise is so important.

Finding Your Photographic Interests

Now, with your list completed, we’ll start down the path of finding your interests, with the assumption that you don’t yet know what really excites you. (If you do, you’re already part way down the path.) How do find out what it could be? My suggestion is to try a variety of different things. Try portraits, either in a makeshift studio, perhaps as simple as one side of a room in your home, or on the street; in front of stores at shopping centers or at bus or train stops; or any other place where people are likely to congregate. You’ll have to be pleasant and maybe a bit assertive when asking people to pose for you. Most won’t, but some will. You’ll have to wait patiently to find the few who will say yes. You may even ask if some of them would pose nude for you (a bold leap forward, but some will say yes, though probably not on the spot), or you can hire models to pose nude for you. Nude photography has always been a very popular pursuit, just as painting of nudes prior to the advent of photography had been popular subject matter for centuries.

Ask friends and family members if you can photograph them, and if you can photograph their young kids, not only as portrait subjects but as they play and interact with one another. Action photographs are popular, challenging, and a lot of fun for those on both sides of the camera.

You can try driving to the countryside, the seashore, a nearby forest, the mountains, or to any other natural area to see if you like photographing nature. Try exploring a range of subjects, from the biggest mountains to the tiniest flowers; from the cows grazing out in the farm fields to birds perched on tree branches; from the isolated farmhouse in the small valley between the hills to the waves of the ocean crashing on the beach. There are lots of different things to see out there, and some may truly resonate with you.

You can walk the streets of large cities and see if unplanned events prove exciting to you. Watch what individuals or groups of people do on the streets, and try to photograph those special moments when things come together in fascinating and unexpected ways.

You may find that the architecture of the town or city is of interest to you. For me, this tends to be true of older architecture rather than new, but not always. The third section of my first published book, Visual Symphony, dealt largely with with photographs of huge, generally ugly, downtown office buildings. I included several buildings within a single image, thus concentrating on their geometric interactions and the play of light and shadow upon them, rather than the general drabness of each individual building. To my eye, most of the buildings were uninspiring when looked at individually, but the abstract geometric interactions among them fascinated me (figure 2–1). I’ve continued to photograph such subject matter over the years. Yet it is the old architecture of Europe, or that of the Maya or the Incas (think Machu Picchu) and other places that I’ve visited—and many more that I haven’t visited—that are the most attractive to me.

My general interest in older architecture indicates my leanings, but as noted above, I’ve delved into modern architecture quite often. Architecture that is old, new, or anything in between can be fascinating. It depends on you, the photographer. Modern architecture can be fantastic subject matter—not just structures like Frank Gehry’s wonderful buildings, but even supermarket structures from the 1960s, or a beat-up industrial warehouse. Old architecture—from Machu Picchu to European towns and cathedrals to Ankor Wat—draws almost everyone to it. But it’s you, the photographer, who is drawn to subject matter. As acclaimed photographer Frederick Sommer once noted, “subject matter is subject that matters.” It has to matter to you.

Figure 2–1: Overlays, Dallas

Growing up in Chicago, I marveled at the tall buildings clustered in the downtown area. My fascination with skyscrapers continued into adulthood, even as buildings became progressively more box-like and less tapered and organic. My photographic work started in downtown Calgary, Canada, and continued in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, and other North American cities with concentrated downtown skyscrapers. The most compelling images to me are the ones that force a double-take because the combination of structures is so puzzling and confusing.

Some people have taken to photographing old barns, some abandoned, some still working, some in serious disrepair, and some in the process of collapsing. Barns are fascinating subjects, and you may be able to photograph the landowners as well. These structures are in rural and even some suburban areas all around the country, so unless you live somewhere like downtown Manhattan, there are probably some within striking distance of your home. In fact, from Manhattan, you’ll find some in nearby Connecticut, New Jersey, and not too far north of New York City within the state.

Try some sports photography, perhaps at local high school games or even games in your neighborhood playgrounds and ball fields. You may be able to up the ante by getting into some college or professional events as you begin to get better at it.

Street photography is another genre that may interest you. Some people like to wander through the streets of big cities, finding great meaning in the daily activities that others tend to ignore or take for granted: the person walking briskly down the sidewalk, suddenly stopping because he or she remembers something of great importance that needs attention; the person looking intently into a window display that everyone else is passing by with no interest; the two people discussing or arguing about something as others avoid them on the way to their destinations; the person who dropped a package and is frantically trying to gather it all up before others trample it. These are human interest issues that can be photographed with great affect by the right photographer who finds the angst, humor, or joy conveyed by those involved.

These are just a few suggestions. You’ll come up with many more. Subject matter is anything that you can see and that you feel has some real, intrinsic importance. Try any or all of them, or anything else a friend may suggest. Some suggestions may be so unappealing to you that you won’t even consider them. That’s to be expected. Consider others. You’ll try a few once or twice and find them boring, but one or two others will prove to be attractive, perhaps even exciting. When you start going back to the same type of subject matter over and over, that’s a sure sign of where your interests lie. It’s that simple. You’ve got to try different things to see what draws you in time after time, and what you’ll avoid at any cost.

Start looking more carefully and thinking deeply about what you see in a scene and what you want in the final image. Pay attention to how the visual relationships within your picture frame are working with one another (figure 2–2). These are the relationships among lines, forms, colors, textures, etc., that I discussed in chapter 1. You’ll work at making them relate even better by noting that moving to the left or right, up or down, forward or back can subtly improve those relationships. In time, you’ll start finding that camera position sweet spot almost instinctively. Your compositions will become stronger and more assured.

Along the way, try to analyze why you’re attracted to the subject matter you’ve chosen. This may seem like an exercise in psychological silliness at first, but I think that over time you’ll find that the answers you come up with—however amorphous or inarticulate they may be—will help you make stronger images as you proceed.

I’ll bet that Ansel Adams could have explained why he was drawn to the landscape. Ruth Bernhard could have explained with great clarity why she was so drawn to photographing nudes, women in particular. Mary Ellen Mark can easily articulate why she photographs street people. Diane Arbus could have fully explained why she was drawn to photograph the “losers” in society. These are photographers who have pushed the limits of their specialization, and they fully knew (or know) exactly why they were drawn to those things they do so well. I’m sure they would agree that understanding why they were drawn to their chosen subject matter has served to strengthen their imagery.

Figure 2–2: Cosmic Ice Dog

Where can you find good subject matter? Everywhere. You just have to look and keep an open mind to all possibilities. This ice formation was in a low point in my gravel driveway (one of many such potholes). Every winter we get enough cold days to turn puddles into sheets of ice, and often the forms within them are amazing. This rather bizarre configuration reminded me of plasma clouds in the universe, while the comical form at the bottom center reminded me of a small dog. If subject matter can be found in a gravel driveway, it can be found anywhere.

As I’ve already stated, I think that fine photography is a product of interest, keen observation, intelligence, and planning. Intuition and creativity spring from these basic foundations. So it’s hardly surprising that I’d ask you to articulate why your areas of interest are pulling you in. I am convinced that it will help you produce better images because when you reflect upon your interests, you begin to understand them better and you can determine what it is you want to say about them.

The Starting Point of Photographic Seeing and Creativity

For many people—photographers and viewers, alike—a photograph is simply a record of what was in front of the camera. There is really no thought given to interpretation. But for those of us who see photography as a creative, artistic, and personally expressive endeavor, the scene in front of the camera is always a starting point for your journey. The creative photographer has to find the scene that she responds to and recognize its potential for personal interpretation. This is not an easy task.

Few understand the difference between snapshots, with no interpretation, and real photography that entails personal interpretation. This is the reason we so often hear the phrase, “you were in the right place at the right time,” a comment based on the false idea that the photograph represents exactly the scene that the photographer encountered. It’s a comment devoid of the concept of personal interpretation. For the photographer striving to be creative, the recognition of the vast difference between the scene in front of you and the photograph you can produce is the beginning of your transition from recording a scene photographically to expressing how you feel about a scene emotionally.

Think of it this way: the scene is your palette, and the print is your canvas. This is not dissimilar from Ansel Adams’s famous statement that the negative is the score, and the print is the performance; however, it starts at an earlier point—when you’re at the scene, not in the darkroom with the negative, or at the computer with the RAW file. If you look at the scene as the starting point for your artistic statement, you give yourself the leeway to alter it; to expand upon it; to emphasize some aspects of it and subdue others; to increase or decrease the contrast, both overall and area by area; to increase or decrease the color saturation; or to alter the colors themselves. If you look beyond the scene and consider how you can portray it to express why it moves you or how it affects you, you are thinking creatively right from the start. You can go even further and think about how you may be able to use it as part of a multi-disciplinary collage, which could include painting, drawing, magazine cutouts, or anything else that contributes to the final artistic statement.

Photography is inherently different from the other arts. If you’re a painter, sculptor, writer, composer, or virtually any other type of artist, you start with a blank slate and create your painting, sculpture, novel or poem, or your musical work. The subject or scene that inspires you can be imagined, remembered, or found. In photography, on the other hand, you must start with a “found object”—whether it’s a landscape, portrait, sports event, architectural subject, street scene, or virtually anything else you can imagine—and respond to it with a negative, transparency, or RAW file that you can then interpret in your own creative way. You generally have to start with what is in front of you, rather than invent something new with your imagination. Counterexamples exist, as they always do, such as creating abstract art by shining light directly onto photographic paper, without any use of a camera or scanner. But aside from such arcane pursuits—which can be absolutely wonderful, and are surely very creative—most photography starts with an object or scene. The interpretation begins with the exposure itself, where you see what’s in front of you, and simultaneously imagine what you can do with it. The great exception to this may be studio portraits or still lifes, where the photographer creates or poses the subject to be photographed, in which case the creativity may begin with the set-up itself.

In studio portraiture or still lifes, you can pose the portrait subject or build the still life as you desire; you can set up and alter lighting to suit your desires; and you can set up a backdrop as you please. In outdoor portraiture, you may be able to find the appropriate setting and the lighting situation you desire, or you may be able to alter it with reflectors or fill flash or other such controls, but it’s not quite as fully controlled as it can be in a studio. In either case, however, the unexpected may still occur—a seemingly uncomfortable position that the sitter assumes, a lock of hair that springs upward, a wrinkle in the clothing that proves distracting, a strange conflict between the sitter and the carefully chosen background—so you have to see these problems and deal with them on the spot.

With landscape or architectural subjects, sports photography or street photography, you have to work with a changing scene, with the ambient light, and you have to do it with few controls. You have to see how the light works for you, and if you have the time you may have to move your point of view to optimize the composition.

A painter does not have the same restrictions. The painter can ignore the lock of hair springing upward or the conflict between sitter and background. The painter, perhaps basing the painting on a real scene, can put anything into that painting that does not actually exist in the scene, and can remove any undesirable aspect of the scene from the painting. Photoshop and other digital apps may allow you to do the same thing, but let’s not debate whether that’s still to be considered photography, for a debate like that solves nothing. It’s still part of the creative, expressive process, so I’ll defend it as perfectly acceptable.

In general, the photographer has to see the distractions and figure out how to eliminate or subdue them to the point of insignificance. Sometimes it’s as simple as moving the location of the camera so that the relationship between the forms of near and distant objects is better revealed—perhaps moving the camera just a few inches—and sometimes this has to be done quickly before conditions change. This requires skills of quickness in seeing and responding that are quite different from anything required of a painter. Most important, you’re thinking about the final image while standing behind the camera, and making sensible decisions based on your vision of the final image. You’re not just recording the scene. You’re now elevating the seeing of the scene to the same level of creative importance as that of your subsequent processing of the exposure.

Compositional and Lighting Considerations

Let’s assume you’ve found the subject matter that really interests you, and you’re looking at the scene with an eye toward finding interesting visual relationships within it and interpreting what you see, rather than simply recording it. What does that really mean in practice? Photography, as with all of the visual arts, is a non-verbal language. In order to express yourself adequately, you have to learn how to communicate your thoughts to the viewer, for communication is truly the essence of fine photography.

Light and compositional relationships are the tools used by the creative, imaginative, and thoughtful photographer to convey the message he wants to convey. When used well, these tools may provide the most universal language on earth, far more ubiquitous and understood than any spoken language. People throughout the world are able to respond to imagery in similar ways, even when they have no common spoken language. They will be jolted by visual imagery featuring jagged lines, extreme contrasts, and intense color saturation, and will be soothed by softly curved lines, dominant mid-tones, and pastel colors. This makes photography a very powerful language, indeed. To employ this language in an articulate manner, you have to fully understand its recognized meaning.

Applying appropriate lighting to your chosen subject matter and composing your image in a thoughtful way allows you to control the emotional impact of your image on the viewer. Photography is a communication between the artist and the viewer, just like the communication between a composer and the listener. Just as you can viscerally connect with certain pieces of music, you can connect with photographs. And of course, if you’re the photographer, you want to know how to effectively connect with your viewers.


To translate your passion for the subject matter that means so much to you into an image that captures the viewer’s attention and makes him sit up and take note of what you’re saying, you have to concern yourself with the nuts and bolts of composition. You have to figure out how to arrange the elements within the scene, and of course, make use of appropriate lighting, so that all of your emotions are translated into visual language.

That’s not an easy transition or translation. How do you channel a multitude of feelings into a visual experience? This is especially difficult if some of those feelings are thought-based (such as my deeply held feelings about how global warming is affecting all life on our planet) rather than sensory-based (what you see, feel, smell, etc.).

Consider the following compositional basics, some of which I’ve already mentioned, and then consider how they can affect your initial seeing and your approach to translating the scene in front of your camera lens into your photograph in front of the viewer’s eye.

A photograph composed with a number of vertical lines tends to impart a feeling of strength and stability, like that of tall conifer trees or buildings. Horizontal lines tend to impart restfulness and quiet. Diagonal lines have an inherent kinetic energy, as if a vertical line is in the process of rising or falling, and they imbue an image with a strong sense of dynamism and activity.

A photograph that features sharp, broken or jagged lines, or lines with tight curves, will have far greater impact than one that features gently curved lines. This is true for both color and black-and-white images. So if you’re looking for immediate high impact, it will serve you well to look for those broken, jagged, or tightly curved lines. If you’re seeking a quieter mood, it’s best to compose the image with lines and forms that are gently curved, sort of soft and squishy.

Highly saturated, deep colors will have far greater impact than soft pastels. If the colors are on opposite sides of the color wheel, such as deep blues and flaming oranges, the image will jump out at you aggressively. On the other hand, if your imagery is dominated by light beige and soft blues, it will have a very pastoral or gentle feel.

In black-and-white images, high-contrast juxtapositions of bright whites against deep blacks have a high impact, whereas mid-gray tonalities bordering on one another tend to impart a much softer, quieter, and perhaps reassuring feeling. You have to be careful not to cross the line from quiet to boring. Your choice of tonalities in a black-and-white image parallels the choice you may make between deeply saturated and pastel colors in a color image. This basic choice goes a long way toward setting the mood of the image for the viewer.

A high key image (i.e., one dominated by light tones or pastel colors) tends to impart a more positive, optimistic, or perhaps dreamlike feeling, whereas a low-key image (i.e., one dominated by deep, dark tonalities and colors) tends to impart a more dramatic or mysterious mood, perhaps a pessimistic or even a frightening feel. This may mirror our basic feelings of fear or trepidation that arise when we think about walking through dark city streets or on a forest trail at night, where it’s difficult to know what’s hiding in the deepest shadows. This has been a scary prospect for millennia, and it’s still very much part of our psyche.

Now let’s give some thought to what these basic compositional elements mean when you’re standing there at a scene with your camera in hand. You are drawn to a scene that you probably did not create, and now your task is to make that scene into a meaningful photograph. Looking carefully, you may notice that an object in the middle distance with an especially nice line at its edge will be repeated like an echo or a shadow by another form in the far distance if you move a few feet over to your right. So changing your camera position will create a stronger relationship between the elements in your image. Therefore, you move to make that relationship more apparent.

Perhaps there is something in the far distance that is visually irritating in an otherwise wonderful scene, but if you step forward a full step and to your left a few inches, something in the foreground will block it without changing the overall composition. By blocking the irritant, you strengthen the composition.

Depending on the subject matter, you may be able to angle the camera a few degrees off of true vertical, or even turn it wildly off axis, to make the forms flow more dynamically and create a stronger image. For example, if you’re photographing conifer trees, you’d better keep the verticals vertical, but if you’re photographing sand dunes or oak trees or the sandstone undulations of Utah, verticality may be meaningless, giving you leeway to move away from formal “plumb line” photography. In a portrait, putting the subject at an angle could bring about a very different dynamic, and is likely to say something about the person’s personality.

You may be attracted to a scene, but quickly realize that by zooming in on a smaller portion of it, you really get to the heart of the issue without being distracted by the the pleasant but extraneous material around it. Alternatively, you may be attracted to one specific subject, and then realize that the more you include around it, the better it becomes. So you zoom out or use a shorter lens to include more, which may bring in additional relationships that strengthen the visual experience.

These are just a few of the many decisions you can make in the field to strengthen your imagery, once your mind is focused on the compositional possibilities. I’ve been involved in every one of these situations in my career, along with so many more, and you will encounter them yourself in your photographic endeavors. These are some of the considerations that separate “seeing” from “photographic seeing.” These are the things you have to think about and act upon when you’re photographing, no matter what the subject matter is.


Together with the many compositional choices you have to make, you must also consider one overriding issue: light. Whether you’re using a digital sensor or film, the only thing it records is the variety of light levels within the image area. Light is your tool, so you must use it wisely. You have to keep in mind that it’s not the objects that the camera sees, it’s the light levels. So you have to determine whether the light in your scene leads your eyes to where you want the viewer’s eyes to go. Or, thinking through the entire process, you may be able to determine if there are processing options that would help the light work for you.

If you’re using black-and-white film, you may be able to use appropriate filters to brighten or darken portions of the scene that have a color dominance, in order to better interpret your feelings. A red filter will darken a blue sky, as will a yellow or orange filter, but to a lesser extent. A green filter will darken lips or a man’s ruddy complexion, enhancing either one. Digitally, you can achieve much the same effect in postprocessing by using color sliders to lighten or darken portions of the image.

Perhaps you can burn or dodge portions of the image, alter the contrast, enhance or subdue the colors, or whatever else it may take to direct the viewer’s gaze where you want it to go. Actively thinking about these things when you’re out there with your camera pushes you far along the path toward a meaningful, expressive image.

In a studio, you may have complete control of the light, but if you are doing landscape work, you have to work with the light that exists. Is the light strongly directional—perhaps sunlight coming in from the left or right—or is it soft and directionless, which you may encounter on a foggy day? Is it drawing your eyes toward the portion of the scene to which you want to draw the viewer’s attention, or is it pulling you off to the side or to something of relatively limited importance? You may be able to exert some control with reflectors or fill flash if the subject matter is close enough, but those controls won’t work for a distant mountain range or seascape. In all cases, you have to recognize if the light is working with the compositional elements, and if you can work with it further in the darkroom or with photo-editing software to bring out the effect you want.

Figure 2–3: Gathering Storm, Lofoten Islands

It was really the latest in a series of violent winter squalls screaming through the archipelago of islands just north of the Arctic Circle in Norway. The clouds were brilliantly white, with sunlight hitting them directly. They were also deeply black, or so it seemed to me. They certainly felt black on that day in March 2013, perhaps because I knew that within minutes we would again be assaulted by screaming cold winds and pelting snow. (Following that was another period of calm and sun before the next squall came roaring in.)

Suppose you make a portrait or a landscape exposure under bright sun. Do you have to print it as if it were a bright, sunny day? Not necessarily. You can “turn down the lights,” in essence, to create a lighting situation that more closely fits a darker emotional mood. You can’t change the direction of light, and you probably can’t make it look like a foggy day (although with the proper exposure and development you can come surprisingly close), but you have a remarkably high degree of latitude in your presentation of the image, giving you a high degree of control (figure 2–3). It’s yours. Use it.

In the studio you can control the intensity of light, the directionality of light, and the sharpness or softness of light. For portraiture, the interpretive possibilities are endless. You can use different types of lighting to bring out the cragginess or smoothness of skin. You can work with the subject to bring out the wry smile or the irritated scowl. All of this goes a long way toward conveying the personality of your subject. This can be used to altruistic or devastating ends; the choice is up to you. This is where your creativity springs into being.

Without considering composition and lighting, you’re simply snapping pictures. You have to engage your mind from the start, and ultimately you have to think the process through to the very end, to your final photograph. You have to think about the steps needed to get from the scene that you didn’t create to the photograph you want to create while you’re standing there with your camera. In other words, the whole process must be part of your thinking from the start.

Example Images: Applying Compositional and Lighting Considerations

Now let’s look at a few images to see how these ideas work in practice.

Deception Pass Bridge (figure 2–4) features three key elements: the upper right black square, the lower left triangle, and the strong line of the girder dividing the two. There is a feeling of stability laced with some kinetic energy from the many diagonal lines. Beyond that, everything slowly fades away into the fog in a series of geometric lines going in every direction. It was necessary to carefully place my camera to bring out those key relationships in the strongest way.

Radiator Rocks, Alabama Hills (figure 2–5) is related in many ways to the studies I did of the English cathedrals. The columns, vaults, and arches of the cathedrals are replaced here by a parallel series of vertical-to-rounded boulders that creates a feeling of quiet stability and strength, yet also alludes to infinity, since the viewer’s eye-mind combination projects this series of forms to go on forever. I used my longest lens (500mm) on my 4×5 camera to focus on this set of giant granite fins, eliminating everything else around it, but still maintaining an interesting relationship between the foreground fins and the distant background in the upper right. The photograph was exposed just prior to sunrise, when the light was directional but soft. Minutes later, when the sun rose, the harshness of the bright sunlight and deep shadows turned the scene into an uncontrollable cacophony of intense blacks and whites.

Figure 2–4: Deception Pass Bridge

The bridge, which links Whidbey Island with Fidalgo Island in the Puget Sound, was surrounded by dense fog at sunrise. Standing immediately beneath the roadway, I set up my camera to photograph the supporting structure—seemingly random in many ways—disappearing into the fog. Within 45 seconds of exposing the negative, the fog abruptly disappeared, and the feeling it imparted disappeared along with it.

Figure 2–5: Radiator Rocks, Alabama Hills

This remarkable series of round rock fins in the Alabama Hills, immediately east of the Sierra Nevada, reminds me of old radiators from my childhood apartment in Chicago. At the same time, it reminds me of the series of columns, vaults, and arches I photographed in the English cathedrals in 1980 and 1981—almost a mathematical metaphor on infinity.

Ghosts and Masks (figure 2–6), part of my “Darkness and Despair” series, is dominated by dark tones with tightly curved highlights that look like grotesque faces, imparting a brooding, scary feel to the image. Many have likened the image to Norwegian painter Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which I have always taken as a great compliment. I made this image with my 6×4.5 cm camera with extension tubes, which allowed me to do macro work on a portion of a log that was no more than five inches on a side. The scene was photographed under soft, evenly lit, cloudy conditions. I increased the contrast both in negative development and during printing.

Figure 2–6: Ghosts and Masks

This image is part of my “Darkness and Despair” series, which was triggered by the devastating loss of an environmental battle in which politicians illegally gave a permit for an aggregate mine after its permit was denied in court. I funneled my anger and frustration into photographs of burls on a small log I found in the forest on my property. Its grotesque figures peer out from the blackness within the image and that within me.

Into the Center of the Earth, Buckskin Gulch (figure 2–7) jumps out at you powerfully, with it’s brilliant reds and oranges glowing against the deep purples and blacks of the enclosing walls in the deepest portion of the slit canyon. The light was coming from above and around the next bend, causing me to audibly gasp when I emerged from an even darker segment of the canyon into this paradise of brilliance.

Font’s Point, Anza Borrego Desert (figure 2–8) is a dramatic landscape image that I took under rather striking lighting and weather conditions. Yet it is softened greatly by the pastel beiges and browns of the badlands, and by the light, unsaturated blues of the sky.

Figure 2–7: Into the Center of the Earth, Buckskin Gulch

In the deepest portion of Buckskin Gulch, 400 feet below its top and only 10 feet wide, the dark, foreboding walls suddenly give way to brilliant sunlight reflected off of walls ahead and around the next bend. It was a knee-weakening sight to unexpectedly come upon such brilliance down in the depths of this 11-mile long crevice in the land.

Figure 2–8: Font’s Point, Anza-Borrego Desert

The badlands of the Anza-Borrego Desert east of San Diego shimmered below storm clouds that were blowing in and blowing out simultaneously. It was a striking landscape and cloudscape, yet it was strangely softened by the pastel colors that dominated the scene.

Eliminating Problems in Advance with Careful Looking and Seeing

When exposing any negative or digital capture you have to concentrate on the main subject matter and the relationships in your composition, which is entirely obvious. What seems so counterintuitive to beginning photographers, and to many intermediate and advanced photographers as well, is that the “unimportant” areas of the image are just as critical. I’ve found that so often when I try to photograph the landscape—particularly when I’m not out in an undisturbed wilderness area—there are inevitable distractions or undesirable objects lurking somewhere within the frame I’ve chosen. Somehow, I must eliminate those distractions.

Consider how you would feel about Ansel Adams’s famous photograph Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (figure 2–9) if there were a bulldozer in the lower left corner. That would probably be enough to kill the photograph for you. The rest of it is great, but that distraction, taking up no more than one percent of the entire image, is deadly. If something that small can ruin a photograph as wonderful as Ansel’s iconic image, it’s a certainty that equally undesirable intrusions into your images will ruin them as well. Therefore, you have no choice but to eliminate that distraction.

Sometimes you can literally remove that distraction yourself. Maybe it’s the small branch of a nearby tree intruding into the edge of your image, or a blade of grass at the base of that tree that can be bent out of the way or pulled out. Maybe it’s a strange wrinkle on a portrait subject’s sleeve that can be cleared away. As previously stated, sometimes moving the camera to a slightly different position—maybe a bit to the left or right—is enough to put the distraction behind something in the foreground or middle ground without compromising the composition. But what happens if you can’t remove the distraction from the scene and still maintain the good compositional relationships?

The next option to consider is whether or not the object can be removed during the printing or finishing. Using traditional methodology, I’ve sometimes been able to remove an unwanted object by carefully drawing on the negative with pencil to effectively remove that object from the negative, or by spotting directly on the print to remove the unwanted object at that stage. Sometimes I’ve worked partly on the negative and partly on the print to eradicate an unwanted distraction.

This is where digital technology offers the best solution: the clone stamp tool from Photoshop or its equivalents in other applications. Oh, how I wish that that tool were available in traditional photography. At times it would be invaluable just to remove dust specks or spots on the negative that appear as black spots on the print, and that can only be removed by etching the surface of the print. With the clone stamp tool, you can replace a lot of distractions with a similar color or tone drawn from a nearby area. In some cases you can even use the tool to fill in empty areas, such as an absence of foliage in a portion of a tree where a bright sky peeks through. Here you may be able to copy a section of foliage from another part of the tree and plunk it into that empty space without it being noticed, even upon close inspection.

Figure 2–9: Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941 Photograph by Ansel Adams.

© 2013 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.

Photographed seconds before the sun set, this iconic image has captivated viewers for over 60 years. It draws us in and holds us there. Yet it is a dramatic departure from reality, and a dramatic departure from the early printing of the same negative. Years after making the exposure, Ansel intensified the lower portion of the negative, giving the foreground, church, and cemetery more life and brilliance. He burned (darkened) the sky to total blackness, obscuring the clouds above the moon that were visible in earlier printings. He lightened the ground, which in earlier printings was darker than the sky and clouds. In essence, the photograph that has become an icon bears little resemblance to the scene Ansel photographed. It is, to be sure, a dramatic abstraction and personal expression of how he felt, at least in retrospect, but it’s not meant to be reality. Yet most viewers worldwide view it as reality, as if he was simply “in the right place at the right time.” It turns out that “the right time” never occurred; it was created.

The clone stamp tool is a fabulous tool. But it can also be a double-edged sword. I have noticed that digital photographers are relying on that tool more and more, and are not taking the time to look for distractions within the frame before exposure. This promotes sloppy seeing from the start. Yes, you may be able to remove distractions later in the process, but it helps to be aware of them from the beginning so that you can factor that requirement into your complete strategy for producing the final image. The availability of digital tools like the clone stamp tool often make people think that virtually anything can be fixed later in Photoshop or another application. Some people feel they can even change the lighting later in the process, which you really can’t do.

While I wish the equivalent of a clone stamp tool or some other “fixit” tool that could be applied to an image at a later stage were available in traditional photography, the fact that such tools don’t exist forces me to look more carefully at the scene. I am convinced that this extra-careful looking—even if done quickly—has improved my ability to see and understand a scene more deeply.

The reason I stress the need to carefully look from the start (aside from Yogi Berra’s wonderful statement that “you can see a lot just by looking”) is that it strengthens your composition. I see photography students who have become oblivious to bothersome elements in a scene because they feel they can rely on fixit tools or apps to rectify the problem. But this thinking produces a second problem: they fail to see the distractions in the final image. I have learned over time that it’s usually the insignificant things within the rectangle of your image that destroy the photograph, not the main points of interest. Most photographers are so involved with the main points of interest that they ignore the backgrounds, the image edges or corners, or anything of non-importance that can pull the viewer’s eye away from those primary points of interest. You have to see the distractions right from the beginning, and do whatever you can as early in the process as possible to avoid them, including devising a method for removing them at the appropriate point in the process.

Improving Your Seeing with Film

The discipline of using film, and particularly large format film, is one that every serious photographer should avail themselves of. It sharpens your observation and seeing. With film you have to look carefully—even if conditions warrant speed—to see if the prime subject matter works compositionally with the other elements in the image. You have to see if the light is working to your benefit. You have to look for distractions more carefully. You have to do this because you can’t quickly review the image and delete it. Once exposed on film, it’s permanent (figure 2–10).

Too often it seems that when shooting digitally, the photographer is thinking something like, “beautiful,” or “pretty,” or “crashing,” without seeing the light, the other elements within the frame, or the moment when the action is at it’s height. There is clearly a higher skill level that is required to capture the “decisive moment” (think Henri Cartier-Bresson) in a single exposure than there is to go through a virtual moving-picture set of frames to single out the best image among many. I believe that film forces a type of discipline and keen observational skills on a photographer that digital does not. I consider that level of discipline to be invaluable. I’m convinced that whether your specialty is street photography, landscape, sports, architectural, portraits, or anything else you can think of, it’s better to start with a strong sense of discipline, rather than develop a habit of making an exposure too rapidly and then deleting it immediately upon a second glance.

Figure 2–10: Liquid Land, Coyote Buttes

In an area at the Arizona/Utah border often referred to as “The Wave” I photographed the undulating, flowing sandstone, which almost seemed to be moving rhythmically beneath my feet. It was a cloudy day, so I had none of the problems associated with bright sunlight and deep shadows, which could have interrupted the flowing forms. Soft light was perfect for my intent, which was to bring out the remarkable fluidity of a landscape that seems unearthly even as you stand within it.

Some readers may think that I’m overemphasizing this issue, beating a dead horse, if you will. I’m not. It really can’t be overemphasized. If you want to improve your seeing you have to do it right from the beginning. If you can proceed with the knowledge that you’re already aware of the pitfalls and distractions within the scene—and even better, if you’ve already avoided or mitigated them—your images will improve markedly. By incorporating that level of discipline into your thinking, your images become stronger because you instinctively see things at the start that you wouldn’t otherwise see. You may have read research that shows that people working on fast-moving computer games become better at quick reactions to unexpected situations while driving. This is much the same thing; the more it becomes part of you, the more your imagery improves from the very start.

I credit a great deal of my own seeing to working with a view camera. Even when I use my digital camera, I seem unable to just snap away with the thought that I’ll look for the good frames later. View camera work has instilled a sense of discipline in me that pervades all of my photographic work. I have heard the same thing from others who have worked with view cameras, even those who now shoot only digitally. They all say that the view camera work helped their seeing, their sense of discipline, and their entire approach to digital work. Interestingly, I have heard from those who have made the switch from digital to traditional work that the change forced them to see more carefully, and therefore their seeing has improved. It leads me to believe that some grounding in traditional photographic processes—and especially some use of a large format camera—has lasting beneficial effects in honing one’s seeing.

This corresponds to the type of careful seeing and discipline that Pablo Picasso’s father forced on him as a youth when he showed that he wanted to be a painter. The elder Picasso had him paint pigeon feet to look realistic. Pablo did it over and over and over, more than 100 times, until his father felt satisfied that he was seeing and translating the imagery correctly. At that point, Pablo’s father allowed him to proceed. You wouldn’t think that a guy who did cubist paintings and so much more would need that type of discipline, but he went through it. He could have painted anything in a realistic manner, but he went on to create new paths, producing a lifetime of art that ranks with the very best. It’s that discipline that I feel many photographers lack today.

For digital shooters, it could be helpful to spend a couple of hours every month or two shooting with film, as a sort of training regimen for careful planning and seeing. If you don’t already have a film camera, you can often find inexpensive, used ones at local camera shops or online. A 35mm camera would be sufficient; 35mm film can be purchased at virtually any camera outlet. You can have the film processed at a lab or process it yourself. The objective here is not to learn film processing, but to learn the discipline needed to more carefully and objectively look at a scene—without the instant feedback you’re used to getting with a digital camera, and have become dependent upon—so that you understand the concept of looking, seeing, and analyzing more clearly.

Let’s go back to Ansel Adams’s Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico for a moment. Would he have made that photograph if a bulldozer had been there in the lower left corner? Perhaps. Maybe he could have aimed the camera slightly to the right to eliminate the bulldozer, and still produced an equally powerful image. Maybe he could have simply cropped it out. Maybe he could have tried spotting it out later. If digital processes had been available to him, there would have been no hesitation. He could have made exactly the same composition and cloned it out. That would have been the simplest solution.

Figure 2–11: In Peekaboo Canyon

Although this image was made with a 4×5 camera, it was placed on the ground rather than a tripod, making it difficult to focus and tricky to prevent the camera from swiveling as I put the film holder into it.

I print the image small—about 6×8 inches—even though it is quite sharp. For me, the upper corners work well in the small size, but would turn into large, dark, boring areas in a large image.

I’ll guarantee this much: if I had been Ansel Adams and had digital tools at my command, I wouldn’t have hesitated to make that photograph.

Print Size

I also feel that print size is closely related to compositional elements in creating the final feel of an image. I generally produce 16×20-inch prints for display. Sometimes, assuming all the technical issues fall into place (e.g., sufficient sharpness and smoothness of grain), I can print some of those images even larger, up to 20×24, 24×30, or even 30×40. But sometimes I print images at smaller sizes, no larger than 11×14, 8×10, or 5×7. Why? What are the considerations for making a print 16×20 or larger, or as small as 5×7?

Figure 2–12: Road to Monument Valley

Despite being a vast landscape, the image is printed in a small size because I feel that the dark sagebrush expanses on either side of the road would be oppressively ponderous in a large image. My decision to make a print large or small is independent of the size of the scene in front of the camera. Instead, it’s purely a function of visual considerations of the final image.

Figure 2–13: False Solomon’s Seal

The delicacy of the False Solomon’s Seal, its stem, its narrow leaves, and the surrounding leaves from a different plant pushed me toward making this a small print—little more than 5×7 inches. In a larger size, everything seems overbearing to me, and the dark, out-of-focus leaves in the background, which seem immaterial in the small size, become bothersome distractions in a larger image.

Of course, an overriding consideration would be technical issues. For example, an image that I feel requires extreme sharpness may appear sufficiently sharp at one of the smaller sizes, but is unsharp at 16×20 or larger. Another consideration would be the size of an area with low tonal variation. It may be quite acceptable in a 5×7 image, but it becomes boring or oppressive in a larger size (figures 2–11 and 2–12). Sometimes, the image may hold up technically in every way, but I simply don’t want a large image because it negates the delicacy of the feeling I want to convey (figures 2–13 and 2–14).

The major considerations in my decision to make figures 2–13 and 2–14 in smaller sizes can be better explained by allegory to music, particularly the classical music I’m drawn to. I feel that some pieces of music are specifically composed for a full symphony orchestra, while others are composed for a string quartet. I want to hear Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 played by a full orchestra, but not by a string quartet. It simply wouldn’t work for a string quartet; it would sound thin. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to hear a piece written for a string quartet played by a symphony orchestra. It’s delicacy and intimacy would be smothered by 100 musicians. Similarly, I feel that some images work best as a large, 16×20-inch image or larger, and some work best as an 11×14-inch image or smaller.

Getting Feedback and Responding to It

As I’ve already stated, photography is a non-verbal form of communication between the photographer and the viewer. If you have nothing to say, nobody is interested in listening. Making meaningless photographs is right on par with producing meaningless sounds. Sure, you can take pictures of a family gathering or club party and pass them around to family or club members who will enjoy them, but those photographs will probably have little meaning to anyone outside of the family or your group of friends.

So if you want to say something that will appeal to a wider audience, it’s good to know what you’re trying to say. Just as great speakers must know what they’re trying to communicate verbally, great photographers must understand what they’re trying to communicate visually. This isn’t exactly rocket science, but in many ways it may be just as difficult. Trying to understand and articulate what you want to communicate visually is not an easy task. But if you can come close to doing so, your images will undoubtedly improve.

When determining whether you are successful in communicating your message, it helps a lot to get periodic feedback from someone who knows something about visual imagery. Friends and family members can and will comment on your photographs, but they’ll be especially kind, largely because you’re part of the group or family, and also because they may understand little about the elements of photography. You need feedback that’s truthful and insightful. A good college-level class or a good workshop can be very valuable in this respect. That last recommendation may sound utterly self-serving, since I conduct photography workshops, but I have also attended one as a student—the two-week Ansel Adams workshop in 1970—so I know from both sides of the fence just how valuable some knowledgeable, intelligent feedback can be.

This raises a very interesting philosophical question: Should you always go along with the recommendations and critiques of the “experts” reviewing your work? Let’s face it, if van Gogh had listened to his critics, his marvelous paintings would never have been produced. Monet, too, was criticized mercilessly throughout the first several decades of his career. In response to my first major photography exhibit, a critic from the Los Angeles Times referred to my images as third-rate Ansel Adams attempts, and specifically pointed to my most popular image, Basin Mountain, Approaching Storm, as the quintessential example of the shallowness of my work. Six years later, in a critique of another exhibit of mine, the same critic wrote about the power of my work, and pointed to the very same image as an example of that power (figure 2–15).

The initial negative criticism hit me like a ton of bricks. I was devastated and I didn’t even want to look at the photograph. However, it sold multiple times during the exhibit, forcing me to to print it over and over and over to fulfill the many orders. Somewhere along the way, while inspecting one of the prints in the darkroom, I suddenly came to grips with the issue, realizing that I really loved the image and I didn’t give a damn what the guy said about it. I’ve continued to love it and show it ever since. I’ll stop showing it only when I get tired of it.

The answer to the question of whether you should go along with what a reviewer recommends is “sometimes yes, sometimes no.” You know what your goals are. A reviewer may or may not understand your goals or recognize your message as you want them to. It’s up to you to determine whether that reviewer is pointing out salient defects in the work that you can strengthen, or if the reviewer is just plain wrong.

That’s exactly what I tell students in the image review sessions at my workshops: we’re giving you ideas and suggestions about the imagery (“we” being the other students and the instructors). You’ll remember every one of them because you’re on high alert when your work is being reviewed. I’ve never seen a student fall asleep while his work was being reviewed. So, now you have a set of ideas that you can evaluate when the real critique takes place, which is when you take your images back home and review them yourself. It is up to you to decide if one of your images needs to be altered in some way, is quite effective just as presented, or really belongs on the scrap heap. Since you know your goals, you’ll decide which suggestions to discard, which to accept, and which to accept in part.

Of course, if you are going to convey emotion, you have to be in tune with your own emotions and those