The Workflow

PM screen
Photo Mechanic screen shot

 

Martin Stabler has a daily photo email that he has maintained for many years. Only recently has he begun to actually post a photo he shot that day, instead of posting from his archive, and he asked me for workflow advice. Here’s how it happens, after the shoot.

Every day I download to a computer, usually my laptop. I use Photo Mechanic as my ingest app (http://www.camerabits.com/). This is a fabulous, fast app that doesn’t try to be more than what it’s good at, which is ingest and metadata. I aim all my ingests to a folder on the Desktop called Inbox. PM makes a dated folder and dumps your card contents there. What’s great is that it remembers what it’s already ingested, and it won’t download duplicates. I can shoot for days and not clear the card, and PM only grabs the new photos. 

I full screen and delete the bloopers, and star rate the possible candidates with a single star. I go for first impression. I’m not pixel peeping, it’s a quick hit, and I scan through the take quickly. It can be anywhere between a dozen to several hundred shots, and I rarely star more than a half dozen. Then I rename with a date code and sequence number (e.g., 20161026_034). That’s the permanent file name. In PM there’s a stationary function that applies metadata. I select all and attach that. The copyright info is permanent, but I write specific caption info for batches of photos. 

I then open up the folder in Bridge, select all, and open in Camera Raw. I have a general preset that’s automatically applied (color temp, exposure, white and black values, and camera profile), and then I batch edit groups of photos that are shot in the same light and exposure. Now I have a sense of what’s actually in the images. I’m of the opinion that batch processing is way faster in the Bridge/Photoshop workflow than it is in Lightroom, but that might just reflect the muscle memory I’ve built.

Back in Bridge I’ll select only the one star images, and cruise through those to mark the 2 star winners. They’ll only be 3 or 4 of those on a really good day. I’ll do some additional Camera Raw work on those, and open up the winner in Photoshop, which I use really just to save it as a jpg (2075 pixels wide, Quality at 5), to the Dropbox folder that has all the daily winners. I post from there. 

This all takes between 10 minutes to a half hour. 

Photography lives on screens now, and my raw processing has reflected that. I’m much more aggressive than I used to be. I often push my exposure slider way down, just to the edge of clipping, and then ramp up the whites until it looks good. This is really lovely in the low contrast overcast light we have much of the time, and when there’s histogram room to spare. In hard light I’m often doing the opposite, underexposing to protect the highlights, pulling up the shadow slider and cranking down the Highlight slider to just shy of it looking weird. You get your sky color back that way. Other than that, I don’t alter anything that’s in the frame. Virtually all the shots I post are uncropped. I’m taking full responsibility for how the camera framed the moment. 

The syllabus for “How To Take Photos That Don’t Suck”

Camp Cavell CDSS Camp, Michigan
Camp Cavell CDSS Camp, Michigan

I’m at a week long CDSS dance camp in Michigan, where I am offering a course in, “How To Take Photos That Don’t Suck.” Over the week I’ve been writing and adding to the syllabus. Here’s the intro:

“A camera can allow you to enter more deeply into the moment. Taking pictures, your senses are more awake and attuned to your surroundings. But most of us are frustrated with the results. Why isn’t the emotional charge when I took the picture coming through? Why doesn’t the camera know what I feel? Why do so many of my pictures suck?

“It’s a cruel fact. Your camera doesn’t care about you. It doesn’t care about what’s in front of it, like you do. You have to learn how to see the way a camera does. You need to learn how to take the emotional, connective energy that makes you want to document the moment, and transform that into the craft of seeing.

“My bias is that of a long time professional photographer, the majority of that time in the film and darkroom environment. My artistic orientation is that of a documentary photographer with a strong formalist sensibility. I embrace and celebrate the democratization of the medium and its unprecedented accessibility and, although I am not a digital native, I speak it relatively well as a second language. We are living through a profound change in photography’s place in the culture, and it is a fascinating time to be alive to witness it and to understand how profound the change is.

“Understand my biases for what they are, and that there are no right approaches or answers to any of this. This is merely one way to approach the medium.”

Why Today I Saw

Rudbeckia
Rudbeckia

I have been taking photographs for well over 50 years, since I was very young. I have been taking them with a digital camera for the last twelve.

When I first went digital in 2004, I was overwhelmed by the information and skills I needed to acquire. My professional credentials as a photographer were seriously suspect. I faked it, and hoped not to blow things too badly. I started a daily photo blog as a mechanism to get good at a workflow. If I made myself shoot every day, and post a photo every day, I would eventually regain that unconscious fluency in the process of image making that I felt I had lost. 

It appears I forgot to stop. I haven’t missed posting a photo a day in over 11 years. That is 4,097 posts. I dare not break the chain now.

I carry a camera with me much of the time (a real camera, not that fake iPhone one). No matter what else is going on in my life, I make a photograph. If I’m on assignment, it’s from that. If I’m homebound, it’s often my garden. If I go shopping, I might photograph the produce. If I go dancing, I bring the camera. When I take my mother-in-law to the doctor, I scour the exam room for photos. If I’m sick with the flu, I make a photograph of the sickbed. 

This daily discipline of finding a photo worth posting is now the core of my creative process. I know how to quickly enter the zone, that state of being where one is alert to any possibility, The camera both narrows and expands the sense of being in a place. In order to frame a coherent set of shapes and lines that feels complete, it requires entering literally another state of consciousness.

Photography is not about subject for me, even if the evidence bears witness that certain subjects are more interesting to me than others. I make photographs in the most convenient surroundings. But I am largely indifferent regarding what I shoot. The point of my photographs is not necessarily the subject of them. My favorite quote on the matter is from Frederick Sommers: “Subject matter is harmless, but it can be charming to the point of distraction from other elements.” 

What I take that to mean is, if all you see is the subject, it won’t work. Those other elements, line, shape, light, position—the pieces that make a photograph “work”—are the data stream of the moment that in this odd alchemy of presence and technology make it possible to create a compelling photograph. They make us care about the subject. 

What I look for when I have a camera in hand is a state of feeling, inside myself, that finds some congruency with the external reality. Putting a frame around that reality and making a decision regarding moment intensifies and deepens that sense of connection with place or relationship. I feel as though I dive down into an altered state of awareness, acquire the goods for the day, and then resurface. Then I pop the card into the computer to see what I saw down there. 

And I do it every day.

See every single one
Today I Saw (2013-2016)
Today I Saw (2005-2013)

The Camera You’ve Got

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It was low tide. Green algae covered the boulders like a clingy dress. The dry stones above the high tide line were brown sandstone, smoothly eroded, some with fossils embedded in them. I finally felt ready to pull out my camera and connect with this scene. I composed a shot, and saw, blinking in the viewfinder—CARD. Which means: you forgot to put in a card, dummy.

It was 6 miles down the road, still in my card reader, back at the bed and breakfast.

I thought I had trained myself not to do that anymore. Damn! I took a deep breathe, said, well, I’ll take in the moment. This is what the universe says to do right now.

That lasted 10 minutes, maybe.

The sky had a thin sheen of mackerel clouds, making the sun into a giant softbox. There is no better light on the planet. There were amazing pictures here, and I couldn’t quell the impulse any longer. Well, OK, I have this phone on me. I guess I can use that. Even if it is a toy.

I have tried to reconcile myself to that ubiquitous device that most of the world now uses for photography. I really have. A client once contacted me about training their staff to take better shots for social media, so I trained myself to shoot well with an iPhone so that I could tell them how to do it. I have a set of auxiliary lenses, and my phone lives in a special case that has a bayonet mount for those lenses. I have multiple camera apps that save in uncompressed tif format and that allow for full manual exposure.

I still hate shooting with a phone.

Especially when I want to lose myself in a complex environment. I hate doing it on a screen, unsteady, at arms length, where I have to remove my glasses to even see what’s there, and where I can’t make out anything on the screen if it’s halfway bright outside. I hate losing compositional control. And I hate losing the post processing control that I’m used to with raw files.

There’s a great sense of command when you are immersed in the frame and nothing else, and you’re perceiving the exact point of view of the camera, and you can note every subtle change of position and direction and the event unfolding in the theatre of the eye. That is what a single lens reflex camera offers. That is what, in my stupidity, I don’t have.

Still, I make the best of it, and I still gain that lovely sensation of losing myself in the place, seeing it, paying attention to it. This is where a camera does its magic. It mediates and magnifies the moment. It takes work to build fluency to get to that point, of course. And there are moments best felt without an intermediary, particularly if the technology puts up a wall between yourself and the experience. In that case, put the damn thing down. Take the moment in. But sometimes, the camera makes it deeper and clearer than it could be any other way.

Even a dumb camera phone.

ip_160720_022

Dispatches Redux

French Beach Provincial Park, Vancouver Island
French Beach Provincial Park, Vancouver Island

Welcome to the new home for an old blog that I am vowing to rekindle from the devastation of attention spans wrought by Facebook, et. al. I am as guilty as any of you, as my online attention to both posting and reading has been trounced by the quick dopamine hit of the Like syndrome. My ability to craft and consume cogent, long form, thoughtful writing has suffered. But I’m going to reform, I am, I am.

I was a proto blogger, writing online before the form was invented. When I was traveling in the 1990s, I built a modest email following for the essays that I wrote, particularly during my Ireland travels. In 2004, when I made the transition to digital, I wanted to document that sea change in my career. That’s when I started Dispatches on Typepad.

I was a prolific blogger back in the day. Over 900 posts over the duration. What interested me most was describing the process of image making. Not so much the technical bits, but the internal process of how an image comes into being, and the life of the photo. I am a technician in as much as I acquire what I need to feed my work, but I really don’t care about cameras and technology beyond that. But that internal state of how you recognize when a good image is in front of you, and how you work that—I didn’t see many people writing about that. I wanted to describe that process, and let people in on how photography works at a deep level.

As I tried to organize photo workshops around these ideas, it became apparent that there wasn’t a great yearning around that notion. Nor did there seem to be much of a readership for these ideas. I think I peaked in the low triple digits. Not that this stopped me. Same as the work I shoot: I’m not doing it for anyone else (except when they’re paying me, and even then, they wouldn’t be paying me if I hadn’t cultivated the work without that motivation). I photograph for myself. I write for myself.

So I’m rebooting, on a platform that doesn’t look like the latest cool thing from 2004. I’m aiming to reconnect with my inner motivations, and share information and insights that might help you understand the process. I have business motivations, in that I want clients and potential clients to understand what a thoughtful, committed practitioner I am. But I want to be a presence and an influencer for a slower, more considered, more thoughtful mode of image capture and image consumption, the camera as a mediating presence in becoming more connected with the moment. You’ll know that I’m succeeding if you see less of me on Facebook.

Staying Limber

Alldridge Pt, Alyard Farms entrance to East Sooke Regional Park, Vancouver Island
Alldridge Pt, Vancouver Island

A friend of mine, who’s a professional symphony musician, says this about her craft. If you don’t practice for two days, you notice. If you don’t practice for four days, everybody notices.

This idea is occurring to me as I’m teetering with one foot on a not-so-stable log on a boulder strewn beach, looking for the right relationship between these two shapes and textures beneath me. Every micro adjustment in the viewfinder makes me feel a little different inside, and if I could just get a little more of the light colored shape in the left of the frame to tip a bit more, but to do that I need to hover a couple inches beyond my shaky perch to pull it off, and I’m looking for alternate solutions. I’m also trying not to over think this compositional problem, which is frequently the end of the effort. If it’s coming from the head, the heart has a hard time following. So I keep checking in: how do I feel when I look through the camera? Better? Good. Click.

I make this effort daily. Wherever I am, I work the craft and I post the result on my daily photo blog, Today I Saw, like I have for the past 11 years. This week I’m in an extraordinarily scenic environment, southern Vancouver Island, and I’m a sucker for rocks and trees and water. Trite and well worn this photographic terrain may be, nonetheless, I cut my esthetic teeth on Weston and Strand and White, and I still find personal emotive juice in their groove. I’m not making any profound photographic statements. I’m just chasing photographs where they feel good, to me. It keeps me limber.

The next time I perform on stage, when someone’s paying me to do this work, it’ll be obvious that I haven’t missed the practice.