Principles of Photographic Improvisation – There Are No Mistakes
Here it is almost the end of August and I haven’t posted since mid-July. How easy it is to get out of the blogging habit. Even staying mostly home during the pandemic, it is easy to get wrapped up in things and forget to post. Well, I probably should finish the series I started on the Principles of Photographic Improvisation from the book The Soul of the Camera by David duChemin. My previous two posts covered the first three principles Saying Yes, Contribute Something, and Try Something. The fourth principle is There Are no Mistakes.
Wow, there are no mistakes. Seriously!. I have trouble with this one. It seems like I make mistakes all the time. I use the wrong f-stop or ISO, I try to hand-hold at too slow a shutter speed, or I focus on the background instead of the subject. I delete a lot of images after I download them. Not just ones with bad exposure, but also because I typically shoot multiple shots with the same composition with slightly different exposures or trying to capture the “right” moment. For example, I shot my niece’s socially distanced wedding last weekend, taking around 1,500 images. I’m slowly editing those down, and will probably delete 1,000 to 1,200 of them.
DuChemin talks about how photographers often talk about their “keeper rate” as if photography is “a baseball game and someone out there is recording our stats.” Guilty as charged, Mr. duChemin. I mentally think about my keeper rate, not so much as how many I keep (I probably keep too many), but how many are worth keeping and turning into something other than a raw snapshot. DuChemin continues, describing how his own language is often littered with negativity, for example, saying that he went out shooting and “every frame was crap.” (Another admission, I’ve said that too.) He says such an attitude suggests that “we should go out, press the shutter, and end up with a great photograph. As if musicians sit down at the piano and come up with a finished piece the first try. They do not. But they might find a few melodies or harmony that provides clues about the rest of the song the will, eventually, become a classic.”
He asks, “there was a reason you pressed the shutter; what was it?” He’s right. Every time we press that shutter button, we do so for a reason. Our eye saw something and we tried to capture it. Our capture may have been imperfect, or even plain bad, but there was a reason. You need to explore that reason, examine why you tried, and learn from the experience to, perhaps, do better next time. DuChemin suggests those imperfect frames are “part of a process. If you discard them without first giving them a chance to speak, you’ll miss whatever possibilities they were just about to whisper to you. That’s how the creative process works…”
If you are like me, you might come upon a great scene and you start shooting. But as you shoot, you change up the composition a little, or pick a different aperture, or move over ten feet, or get down low. As you explore the scene with your camera, you might learn from you earliest shots, and the images grow better. When I’m editing, most often the earliest shots in a series of images of the same subject are the ones that I throw away. Why, because they often they are bad. But also because I learned as I shot, and the later images are better. I might not keep them, but they are useful to me. In that sense, he is correct, there are no mistakes.
In several posts ago, I mentioned how I’ve been trying to get a shot of Mount Rainier with the moon rising behind it. I tried in June without much success – while you could see the moon and the mountain, the light didn’t cooperate with my vision for the image. I tried again in July. This time, the mountain and the rising moon were covered by clouds. I tried again in August, and this time, I was successful (I’ll post those images in my next blog). Were those two earlier attempts mistakes? Were the images I did take not worthwhile?
The ones I took in June I will probably not do anything with. But I did learn from them; the experience helped me with my technique, and therefore, did help with my successful shots from August. And going out to shoot in July wasn’t a mistake either. I didn’t come home with any images of the moon, but I did shoot the three images featured here, as well as several other “keepers.” And I certainly wouldn’t call any of them mistakes. (In case you are wondering, all three were taken from Dune Park here in Tacoma.) So perhaps there are no mistakes, the only true mistake is not learning from our imperfect attempts.
Principles of Photographic Improvisation – Contribute Something and Try Something
In my last post, I mentioned how I am reading The Soul of the Camera, the Photographer’s Place in Picture-Making by David duChemin, and I described his first of four “rules” or “principles” of photographic improvisation – agreeing or to say “yes” and not “no.” Today, I look at the second and third principles – Contribute Something, and Try Something.
To contribute something, you need to make the scene your own. DuChemin explains, ” Photography is not objective… We bring our own thoughts, opinions, points of view, and interest to the scen and to every single decision, from aperture to focal length to shutter speed to composition. We chose what to include and exclude. It’s not so much about what’s there as it’s about what I see and how I see it.”
Say you travel to a famous landmark or scene and want to photograph it. Don’t worry about how others have done so, make the scene you own. Sure, take that one composition that you’ve seen before, the shot the maybe even inspired you to come in the first place, but then explore the subject scene on you own, making your own compositions. Or as DeChemin says, “Own it. Add to it. Make every photograph you create a collaboration with what’s before you.”
This, I think, directly relates to the third principle, try something. DuChemin urges his reads to “take a risk and try something. Don’t just wonder what would happen if you moved the camera over to the right. Move it! Slow the shutter, use a wide lens. Listen to the questions, but don’t let them go without a response. And if the first answer doesn’t work, try again.”
It doesn’t even have to be a famous scene, just maybe one you’ve been to or photographed many times before. Do you take the same shot again and again? Perhaps. But to improvise, you’ve got to make it new again for you. Maybe try black and white, or shoot it with your phone instead of you DSLR, or shoot only high-key images, whatever! Sometimes to make it your own you need to try something different.
For example, for the past several years, I’ve been offering walking photo tours of downtown Seattle. These tours are great for my clients, as they see Seattle through fresh eyes. But I’ve seen it and shot it all before. It’s a real challenge for me to find something new. So on a couple trips, I pulled out the fish-eye lens. Now, a lot of what I shot didn’t work so well, but some of the images aren’t so bad. In fact, they are kind of fun, and definitely something I made my own by trying something I hadn’t done before, even after shooting the same places dozens of times before – such as Pioneer Square (above and below), the ferry terminal (below), and the waterfall garden (below). That is photographic improvisation.
Principles of Photographic Improvisation – Say Yes
I’m currently reading The Soul of the Camera, the Photographer’s Place in Picture-Making by David duChemin. This book is full of nuggets of photographic wisdom, and I can highly recommend it to any photographer who wants to improve their game. You will not find much in the way of technical details about how to shoot great images. Instead, duChemin discusses the photographer’s mind and it relationship to picture-making.
There are easily dozens of blog post topics I could cover based on this book, but for now I’ll discuss his four “rules” or “principles” of photographic improvisation; the first of which is to agree or to say “yes” and not “no.” That is, say yes to the scene in front of you even if it was not what you expected or intended. You could say this is to go with the flow (which duChemin also talks about earlier in the book). Say yes to photographing what the world gives you rather than turning your back on the scene and giving up because it isn’t what you wanted. Accept what’s there and make the most of it.
A couple weeks ago, I went over to Fox Island Bridge to take a photo of Mount Rainier with the full moon rising behind it right before sunset. This situation only happens on two days each year: the day before the full moon in both June and August. Last August I tried for the same shot with only limited success. I was disappointed from that shoot, and that probably set me up to ignore the principle of saying yes. The weather was not ideal, and the view of the moon was not very good. I snapped a few shots, including the shown here, and packed up and went home disappointed. I failed to look for what else nature might be offering up. It was a few days later that I read about duChemin’s first principle.
I should have known better even before reading the book. I had a similar idea earlier this year. Back in February, I wanted to photograph the full moon setting behind the Olympic Mountains at sunrise. On the appointed day, I got up early and drove across town to Brown’s Point in Northeast Tacoma. When I got there, the Olympics, let alone the moon, were obscured by clouds. I climbed back in the car and headed toward home, thinking that perhaps I still might get some decent sunrise shots from the Cliff House parking lot. Sure enough, Mount Rainier was visible and the rising sun painted it and the low hanging clouds, as shown on the featured shot above and the other images below. I didn’t get what I wanted, but I said yes to what was given, which wasn’t bad at all.
Grinding Coffee with a Hatchet
Tanya and I spent the first half of the week camping at Larrabee State Park up near Bellingham, Washington. We selected the site to, hopefully, to avoid rain (and did so, at least until our last morning when packing up). Our original choice was Kalaloch, on the coast, but with our wet summer, that seemed like a bad choice.
I’ve found, when camping, that we typically forget something. This case was no different – I forgot my glasses and had to survive with only contact lenses – not too bad; but we also forgot towels and went without a shower for three days – bad. What was different about this trip is not what we forgot, but what we brought – whole bean coffee instead of ground coffee. (Actually we did have ground decaf available, which is all I drink, but Tanya needs her caffeine.)
Camping can also be about improvisation – making due with what you have. Tanya made a classic example of this. How does one grind coffee without a coffee grinder? With a hatchet of course! Put some beans in a ziplock bag and pound away with the blunt end of a hatchet. Works every time! Tanya said it was some the best coffee she’s ever had.
Photography is often about improvisation as well. I went on this trip hoping to some good shots looking out toward the San Juan Islands. Larrabee State Park is along Chuckanut Drive, which is blessed with stunning views of the San Juans. However, the conditions did not cooperate. We could see the islands, but the view was a bit hazy, and looked very poor photographically in afternoon light. So I got up early to do a morning shot and was defeated by fog and low clouds covering the view. Now fog can offer its own special look, but not in this case. The view over the water toward the islands was essentially a gray wall. And while I did get some sunset shots, the sunset was toward the northwest, away from the main body of the San Juans. And frankly, the sunsets were nice to watch, but not all that fantastic photographically.
So I had to make do with other subjects. The coastline at this spot is made up of Chuckanut sandstone, which makes a rocky shoreline with interesting boulders. The unusual erosion patterns in the boulders made a good photographic subject. We also visited a friend in Bellingham; which provided me with an opportunity to photograph the historic district there, including some graffiti which made interesting abstracts.
I didn’t get the shot I had hoped for, but I was able to improvise and find some good subjects otherwise. You know the old saying, about lemons and lemonade. Or I guess you could change it to say “if life give you a hatchet, make coffee.”