Searching for style is an interesting task in photography. Why do you choose the compositions and subjects that you do? Are you finding things that please you and sharing them with the world? How is what you are photographing representative of you as a person? How do you recognize your own photos?
In some way, style is unavoidable. It is the result of lots of work. The more work you do, the more you are able to distinguish your style from the rest of the world’s photographs. And it is a world full of images, more photographs than ever before by far. Every day it seems to increase, too.
There are different formal choices you can make that will mark your images as being yours. You could do only black and white or only focus on one color or any other number of ways to say this is your photograph. You can also do this with subject matter.
Your editing has as much to do with it as your shooting. I like to see natural looking light in photographs, so I tend to edit with an aim to having it look as close to the scene as possible. I care about color and want my photographs to show the truest version possible. Other people opt for a super saturated look. The important thing is to have a reason for your decisions. Why is this your style?
Another key distinction with style in photography comes from the use of perspective to achieve depth or flatness. Some photographs (with a foreground, middle ground and background) invite you to look into them as though mentally stepping into a world. On the other hand, some photographs lack perspective and are more for looking at than in.
You also have to choose where along the spectrum between abstract and figurative your work will exist. Some photographers focus on color, texture and geometry and exclude storytelling elements to create a formal viewing experience. Other photos attempt to show you a world, to depict a scene, to tell a story.
It is also very possible for one photographer to have several styles. It is fully possible to create different styles for your work. Different series have different elements needed for their effects.
What is enough? Enough is enough? Have we had enough? What a funny word.
First of all, there’s the spelling. What’s this shit? For one thing, it has what my daughter calls a sneaky g and h. We have a very confusing language, but English is the one I know best and I love it. It’s a funny thing to love words, but there are worse things to become obsessed with, for sure.
But back to enough. What does it mean to have enough, to give enough, to be enough? Enough is the right amount. If there is too much of something, then we say that we’ve had enough. But, if we want to buy something beyond our budget, we have to raise enough capital. Enough is a happy medium, a transactional middle, a form of health, a proper measurement. When adding salt, you taste the food to know if that’s enough. When you look to see if a task is finished you ask if it’s good enough. So, it’s qualitative as well as quantitative.
This is one of the key judgments in photography. Finding the right exposure, the right shutter speed, the desired depth of field, the clarity of shadows, the quality of light you have to experiment to find out what is enough light, speed, dynamic range, etc. Once you have a composition, photographic technique consists of experimenting with the settings to create the desired visual effect. The funny thing about this is that you have to feel it out to learn what is enough. It is a feeling. Keep pushing the settings one direction and then the other until you find the right exposure.
Moderation is a value I believe in, and it has everything to do with the idea of what is enough. Excess leads to sickness, scarcity leads to desperation, but enough leads to the zone of happiness and health. In art, there is a concept known as density, which describes the amount of visual information within a given work or collection of works. Some work is very light and minimal, and some is very dense and baroque. You have the ability to make this choice when composing photographs, too. What do you look for to make a minimalist composition? What is interesting enough? How engaging is the work? Does it ask enough? Does it give enough?
Content creation can be a tricky thing. When you are working for clients you have a much different task than when you are creating content for the public, but they are very much related. In both cases, you have to consider the purpose of your task. When you work for a client, there are multiple overlapping areas of concern. You have to create content that works for you, for the brand, for the brand’s investors, and for the public. When you do personal work, you have the same categories of viewers to consider, but their rank of importance is different.
For example, if you are a content creator and you are posting on your own page, you have different goals. You are trying to sell the service, not the content. You are showing people that you can consistently put out high level quality content.
One thing that I want to think about is the difference between content and art and where art lives in today’s world. The marketing world, the media world and the academic world all thrive on content. They are pushing messages. Art is different. What is the message of art?
On one hand, I am not sure that art has any validity in our world at the current juncture. Who are your favorite contemporary artists? What are they doing? Maybe this is a common feature of art, to be misunderstood. Isn’t that part and parcel of the experience of putting art out into the world? In order to push the boundaries of art, you can’t do work that is already accepted. This means that you are going to have to endure lots of people not understanding what it is you are doing or why you would want to do it. Not that artists always understand either. But you have to do things that are not part of the program. At least that’s my understanding of art. I remember Seth Godin talking about how there are places in developing countries where people crank out oil paintings of scenic views and that is not art; it is painting. There is no invention, no originality, no thought. It is simply craft, just a going through the steps to make something.
What is this element that we call art, then, and does it apply to content creation for brands? On the one hand, we have a definition of art as something done extremely well. There is an art to anything. When Kobe Bryant worked his magic on the court there was an artistry to his movement. This is something else, though, than Rodney Mullen figuring out the most insane flatland tricks on a skateboard. Kobe Bryant always had the goal of scoring a basket, of winning the game. In art, the goal is less clearly defined, and the expressivity is much more important. Sure, there is a technical execution to what Mullen does on a skateboard (he either succeeds in making his tricks or doesn’t), but the goal is to do something new, something innovative. Kobe Bryant wasn’t trying to play basketball in a new way, he was just trying to be the best.
It is these two competing definitions of art that leave us somewhere in the middle. Is art a form of experimental research designed to bring new things in the world, or is it a talent contest that aims to bring the best of what already exists into being? Probably both are valid even though they are so different, but they definitely contribute different values to the world. One is playing golf better than it has ever been played. The other is inventing an entirely new game. We need new games, too, since we are evolving as a culture.
I think of these two qualities that we describe as art, excellence and innovation, as being the result of technique and experimentation. In order to hit a golf ball so well that we consider it an art, you have to master the technique of golf. While there may be subtle nuances of invention in your particular version of the swing, it will be fundamentally recognizable as golfing to anyone who knows about golf. This type of “art” is recognizable based on the results and the form of the technique. It is a much easier thing to see. We already know what the activity is and how it is supposed to go, so it is a recognition of quality not of kind.
When you understand the difference between these two definitions of art, you begin to see how people get confused about contemporary art. They are looking for a display of the mastery of technique when what they should be asking is what the artwork means. Art is not just be a display of talent with technique, but it can also be evidence of originality, of invention.
On the other hand, there is the kind of art that is unrecognizable, at first. This kind of art is entirely based upon experimentation and questioning what can be interesting as an art experience or object. Think of Marcel DuChamp’s readymades. There is almost no technique required. Someone else did the work of manufacturing the object. All DuChamp had to do was select it, sign it with a pseudonym, and place it in a context where it was sure to cause people to ask questions. This changed the conversation from technique “how did the artist do this?” to concept “how did the artist dream this up?”
Robots are already making art. We have used machines to create images for almost two hundred years, now. The human element in art is the courage to experiment when failure is both highly probable and when the results matter greatly. This is the thing that defines the kind of artist I admire: the courage to experiment under fire.
And it is for this reason, that I understand art to be more about experimentation than the flawless execution of technique, that I have begun to understand business, war, and media as more related to art than not. Not only is there an art to war, but war is a form of art as well. Business, media, military force, and art all are attempts to influence others in order to create a space to exist. Through these efforts (to build a brand, to produce media, to enact military campaigns, to create art) we collectively create our way of life. Politics and Religion do this also, but I don’t like to discuss those topics because I like you too much to do that to you.
So I’m asking you next time you see something that calls itself art, that is shown in an art context, to ask different questions. Instead of looking to the work to display talent and technique, see if you can just sit with the thing long enough to see what it does to you. If it makes you mad, note that. If it makes you hate art, note that. But whatever it makes you feel, the way to get the most out of an experience of art is to ask what it could mean, what were the stakes of its being made, why does this matter to other people? If nothing else, this kind of art is a form of mental exercise to practice being open minded. Can you sit with a work of art that doesn’t go out of its way to please you long enough to listen to what it might have to say? In a world full of visual yes men, some art that keeps itself at a distance might be just the thing we need. Think about when you go to the grocery store. The cereal boxes are practically jumping off the shelves to give you pleasure. Is this a red light district or Safeway? Chill, cereal boxes, I’m not looking, lol.
Victim mentality: what is it and why does it happen? People are complicated creatures with lots of layers and many of the deeper ones are unknown if not unknowable. Our interactions are so numerous, varied and of different qualities that it can be difficult to understand who is having what effect on us. How do the people you relate to change the way you experience the world? More importantly, how do you take charge of the situation.
I think that one of the reasons that we can get stuck in a victim’s mentality when something goes wrong is our inability to see the negative in our own personality. Instead of looking at your own decisions, you see your problems as external. This is something that Covey talks about in 7 Habits. It is very easy to be reactive instead of proactive.
The thing is, your happiness depends upon you reclaiming your own power. Whatever has happened to you in your childhood or even this morning is not going to help you to make good decisions today, unless you face it and figure out why you made those decisions back then. That can be very scary, but the other alternative is far more worrying.
I think that part of the challenge of life is an idea that we could ever get to a comfortable place. That is just not going to happen. Any illusion of comfort you have is just a side effect of the distortion of space. You are just focusing on one part of the picture in order to feel pleasure, but what you are ignoring is possibly going to be much harder to deal with when it arises.
How do we move from a victim’s mentality to a warrior’s attitude of unrelenting drive? I think you have to keep asking what it is that you can do. If you focus on how you can improve the situation, then you give yourself a chance.
Still, things will happen that are beyond your control and some of them are going to be negative and will hurt. How do you experience your losses without sliding into a victim mentality? The easiest way to let go of a loss is to own it. I gave it my best shot, but it was not enough. The competition found a way to do more and they won. It is really that simple. You cannot blame anyone else for your problems.
One way you can identify the degree to which a victim’s mentality has infected your thinking is by looking at the language you use. Are you writing in the active voice or are you using passive voice? This is such an important difference, but sometimes we do not even know that we are doing it. Let me give you an example and hopefully it will show how the language we use is more than just descriptive, it is formative. Language creates meaning, it doesn’t just communicate it.
Say you want to share a story about going to photograph the moon. Every sentence has a subject (the hero of the sentence) and a predicate (the hero’s action). If you phrase it so that the action has more importance than the hero you have fallen into passive voice. If you put the hero of the sentence in the driver’s seat, then they have the chance to be actively leading the charge. Let me show you in an example.
The crescent moon was going to set at 7:20, so we had to get in place early in order to capture that last twenty minutes of moonlight.
What or who is the hero of the sentence? What actions are they taking? In this version, it could be easy to mistake the moon for the main actor, because the moon is going to set. It is driving the action. Let’s try it another way.
We knew that the crescent moon was going to set at 7:20, so we positioned ourselves on the beach ahead of time, and we were able to capture that last twenty minutes of moonlight.
The difference can be subtle. It is a matter of agency. Is it the moon that is driving the action or is it your decision to photograph it setting? If the moon is in charge, then you are positioned as a victim who is slavishly doing what you have to in order to achieve your goal. While it might seem subtle, the difference is huge. You are either putting yourself in the position of being the hero of your own story, or you are being acted upon.
This is especially important in a world with mobile internet, because we are subject to news all day every day, so it becomes very easy to slide into a passive mode of reacting to what is happening. The victim mentality is sneaky as fuck. We have to watch the way we think.
Yesterday we got some very troubling news here in California, the land of celebrities, the oasis of cultural heroes. One of our greats, one of our all-time legendary basketball players died in a helicopter crash along with his daughter, another family, and the pilot. Nine people died. Obviously, most people care about all of them, but not many people knew the other family. Basketball fans of a certain age KNEW Kobe, though, and that was why we were so devastated by the news. If you were following Kobe’s story, then you probably were loving his dedication to his daughters and his care in passing down his skills and drive to them. Learning that he died with his daughter on their way to a basketball game sent an enormous wave of grief through our entire country if not the world. Every father’s worst fear came to life in that moment. We all experienced something of the sheer inability to protect your daughter from death as you plunge towards the earth in a fiery death trap when we realized what actually happened and that, that, that is just too much to bear. It is too fucking tragic to believe. When I heard the news there was a moment where the emotional well inside of me threatened to break through the dam. I could feel all the fear and grief of fathers immemorial inside of me as I considered that last moment of fear and of love. Did Kobe comfort Gigi? Did he tell her that he loved her and that it is going to be ok?
Grief is something that enters our life unexpectedly and puts a heavy weight on our minds and hearts, but we do not need to let grief get the best of us. How do you own your grief? How do you take charge of your own process of feeling sad about something you have lost? There is nothing any of us could have done to change the outcome of Kobe and his daughter and that poor family who was with them and the pilot who had no ability to save them. It was an accident. There is nobody to blame. How do we act in a way that reflects our own agency?
You own your grief. You experience sadness and melancholy in proportion to the amount that you care. When you hurt because of a loss, it means that you care about winning, you care about life. You have to translate that pain into strength. It might seem impossible, but the human spirit is beyond what we can imagine. People have endured and transcended unthinkable challenges, and we can too.
Kobe taught us many things. He inspired us with his single-minded-focus and unshakable drive to win and to excel. He also combined the strange ferocity of an apex predator with the goofy sensibility of a kid who loves basketball. While he is undoubtedly one of the all-time greats, I love Kobe because he reminds me of a kid I never knew, a kid who was a basketball nerd, a gym rat, a hoop god. But, what I loved most about Kobe was the way he talked about his daughters.
When tragedy strikes, we are tempted to fall into negative patterns, but if we have the courage to own our own sadness, then it can make us grow stronger, more careful and more available to our loved ones. You never know what is going to happen, so it is always important to let the people in your life know that you love them. RIP Kobe and Gigi. Prayers for the Bryant family, for the Altobelli family, for the Zoboyans, and for the Mauser family. We grieve for those we know, but it is not difficult to remember these other people and to feel for them as well. Prayers and thoughts go out to everyone affected.
Why are people drawn to the edges of things? When you fly over the country, you see the patterns of our development very clearly. We form tight grids and stick to the edges of things. It is almost like the edge of a territory is the surface of some kind of water. We tend to remain where there is visibility. We stay out in the open.
But there are some who choose to live up in the mountains. Some people make that commute each day and nestle away in some canyon nook up in the higher elevations. There are lots of reasons to live in a remote location, but can we escape from the advance of the digital age? These things are hard to answer, because we don’t know what is going to change. For example, we only learned about CFCs and their effect on the ozone layer after the damage was done. Now, we are seemingly waiting on an innovation from technology to save us from catastrophe.
We are experiencing a high degree of Techlash, or backlash against tech, and are putting all of our faith in technology at the same time. The thing is, we have no reason to trust. That is possibly our stupidest trait, but maybe it is also our most beneficial. Intelligence doesn’t equal the good. For something to be good it has to work for people and there are so many different ways that things work or don’t. You have to judge things by their results.
In some ways we are on the edge of a new territory because of the rapid advance of technology. We are entering a new phase of discovery. Some of those ways are literal. Elon Musk is planning on sending a million people to Mars. I didn’t think that was possible, but there he went and said it and he seems to be quite serious about it, too. Now talk about proactive, that’s really getting ahead of the curve. That is a serious programmatic attempt to radically increase the human sphere of influence. Why is he doing it? To get away from AI? Is it inevitable to colonize other planets? Are we already beyond repairing the earth’s atmosphere? If it is possible to make Mars suitable to human life, then why are we so worried about global warming? Isn’t Mars hotter than anything we experience? Lots of questions with that one. The edge of where humans call home is about to radically expand.
There’s one big unanswered question: will there be waves on Mars? What kind of gravity is there? Is it possible to harvest water from deep space to create a wave pool? Will Kelly Slater still be ripping at that time? Questions, questions, questions…
I don’t want to go to Mars, but I can see it happening. That shit is likely as fuck. I don’t know why. It just seems like something I would do. Hopefully it’s cool. The main thing I don’t like about Mars is the whole family aspect. I don’t want to leave my family. Maybe we will all go? Hopefully, we will make that voyage after they’ve worked out a few of the bugs and have that wave pool pumping. What about skateboarding? What is the gravity situation like on Mars? I’m sure they will be pouring tons and tons of hempcrete up there, so there are sure to be some sick spots. But what about the oxygen levels? I know so little about the red planet.
I know that Elon Musk is a highly effective person, though, and it makes me wonder if he read the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, because he would make Stephen Covey proud as a pride of lions. I’m studying that landmark book because I think that it is one of the most helpful self-development books of all time and anyone who I respect is basically working through different parts of this system. Covey was a genius. All hail Stephen Covey. He is a lighthouse in the darkness for people who didn’t receive adequate discipline or structure as a youth. For anyone who wants to be more effective in what they are doing, the book is a treasure trove of wisdom and practical advice.
Say you are a skateboarder and people are starting to comment on your style and you want to try to move beyond casual and occasional sponsorships to really create a career for yourself, then this book can help you to master the process of creating your path in such a chaotic world. I mean think about Elon and all of the thousands of things for him to think about, but he is still coming up with these huge visions. It’s because he has good habits and has mastered how to make effective use of his time.
The first habit is to be proactive. That is such an important word. It has roots in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s idea of self-reliance. To be able to get things started is to increase the likelihood that business will happen, that other people will care. If you take it upon yourself to produce your own media, to curate your own projects, and to communicate with the public about the work you are doing and want to do, then lots more things are likely to happen for you. Being proactive is key to attracting opportunities you want.
What does it mean to be proactive in photography? It can mean all kinds of different things depending on the kinds of photos you take. It could include contacting models, brands, clients, doing a podcast, having a YouTube channel, creating tutorials, networking with other photographers, etc. The only limitation to the ways you can be proactive is your imagination. You can study other photographers. What is working for them? Why? You can learn about art history. What is the meaning of the way we make photographs today? You can learn about the technology. What makes a mirrorless camera different? Education is always a way to expand the circle of your influence, as Covey suggests. You need skills, knowledge and desire in order to do good work and there are ways to develop each of those elements. That is part of what it means to be proactive as a photographer.
It also means having vision. You have to get really good at knowing what you like and why and how to get it. How do you make your photographs? What would you say your style is? That is always the question that keeps coming back up. Being able to answer it is an important first step to increasing what you are able to do.
This whole thing is a miracle if you look at it right. The simplest things are the most sublime. Our breath. An involuntary act. It is the source of life and it runs on autopilot. It’s a very magical existence we share. I’m constantly reminded of this by the things I encounter when shooting photographs, but this perspective is also due to writing and reflecting. The disciplines of photography and writing give me this ability to see the world with a fresh point of view.
Yesterday morning, we headed out before sunrise and chose the wharf as the setting we would use. We are still recovering from the flu, so Wilder is not realistic for the sunrise shoot, for now. Luckily, there are lots of very close places that have tons of potential for photography. The wharf is less than a mile away and it has tons of interesting subjects to study. Not only is it a liminal space (somewhere in between land and water), but it is an iconic Santa Cruz location. So many people have visited the wharf with its view of the Boardwalk and its famous residents: the Sea Lions.
The proximity of the wharf is important. We are trying to use as little energy as possible in the production of our work. Keeping close means being more creative and we still haven’t reached the point of boredom where that creative energy really thrives. There is a confusing thing that happens with photography because the experience of making a photograph can be so exciting. Those photos, when something extraordinary is going down, are important too. They are just not as creative. In other words, if the world in front of you is on fire with color because of an amazing sunrise, then you don’t have to do much to get a great shot. It is when the light is not great and the day seems to have no particular interest that the spirit of invention and experimentation wakes up. By limiting the range of where we are working, we both reduce the amount of energy we use, and we increase the likelihood of engaging those creative muscles that are usually born from necessity. If you need to be the source of the interest in your content, then you will be. That is one of the challenges of living in such a beautiful place. The world barely gives you a moment to be less than enthralled.
Sustainability is the word of 2020, I’ll tell you that right now. You are going to get sick of hearing about it, but that shouldn’t matter. It’s too important for us to think about it like some kind of programming. Unfortunately, that’s how humans seem to get stuff done: by programming ourselves and others. So, it’s going to have some of that amateur media critic vibe to the movement. You know, the Eco-Yelpers. The thing is, sustainability matters for everyone, so we need to rise to the occasion. My goal is to educate myself about the subject and to practice raising awareness by sharing what I learn.
I am currently developing a course based on this idea and I have named it “Imagining Sustainability.” I believe that the biggest obstacle to our transition to more sustainable energy sources and business practices is our collective ability to see the problem and to envision a solution. We need the road map. This is an era of exploration. The brands who figure out sustainability in the next few years will be the brands that last into the future as institutions of culture.
One thing that I want to say about climate change and sustainable development: it is nobody’s fault. I do not think that holding individuals accountable for the situation is going to help. I believe that businesses and other organizations should take responsibility for providing more sustainable solutions. I certainly do not think that people living below the poverty line should have to spend more money to be more ecologically engaged. We need greener and more affordable solutions. To achieve sustainable development, the new products and services need to be better. The market seems to move much less quickly driven by ethical concerns than it does for the desire for better goods.
This course I am designing is for content creators who want to be a part of the sustainable development movement. I am going to be reading and sharing ideas from a bunch of great books and authors. Half of the course is going to be focused on self-development, the other half on the history and challenges of sustainable development. The term comes from a conference held in 1987 called “Our Common Future” and that is one of the important starting points of the conversation.
I want to repeat a very important point: I do not think that individuals should feel responsible for climate change or sustainable development. I mean, people can feel however they feel of course, but there is something much bigger that needs to happen. How we act individually of course has great importance because anything that you multiply billions of times has an enormous impact. If the range of choices that people can make is full of better options, then we stand a chance. Of course, we still need people to behave. Or do we?
The example that comes to mind is the parking lots up north and unfortunately some beaches, where people dump their trash out. This is an especially repulsive pattern as the coastline is pristine and beautiful and seeing fast food packaging and alcoholic seltzer cases littered around is a bummer for sure. But, it is an opportunity for jobs. Every problem is a potential for a new solution. If we can’t successfully convince people to stop throwing their trash on the side of the road, then let’s make it a priority and invest in keeping public spaces clean. But also, if businesses were not making packaging that doesn’t biodegrade then it wouldn’t be in danger of contaminating the ocean. Speaking of that, what is happening with hemp? That is another big question I have, since it was federally legalized last year and we have heard of the promising products that it can help us to create. Look, plastic is an extremely new invention and it has had such a big impact on our planet, but it isn’t the end solution, obviously. We are in the last phases of the plastic era, and a new hemp-based future is starting to break the dark of night.
Back to the sunrise at the wharf. Keeping it close, making the most out of what we have within a narrow range of distance, and entering into this in between world where you are suspended over the ocean on a wooden stretch of road and buildings held up on wooden sticks. When you look at a wharf from a distance it looks preposterous. When you drive out on it, every instinct of automotive preservation screams go back. Cars are not supposed to be surrounded by that much salt water. But it is a normal thing: a wharf. We have them everywhere. The banality of the magical.
The sunrise helps to remind us of that magic as the moments before the break of dawn are something like a wharf of light, this bridge that takes us out into the space in front of us. Then, the first golden rays of light streaming from the golden disc as it crests the horizon line hit all the wet slowly waking things out there gently rocking above the Pacific blue. Some of these waking things start making some very funny noises as they wrestle for position. The Sea Lions warm themselves on the understructure of the wharf in the morning and those first amazing beams of warmth are a prized possession or position, really. They bark and scream and bellow and bite. It is a dramatic scene that takes place in the underbelly of the pier. And it is symbolic of the very animalistic ways we engage with each other. For all the amazing abilities of abstraction and self-reflection, despite whatever linguistic innovations or scientific understandings we have achieved, on a very real and daily level of existence we are so much like those Sea Lions battling over that comfortable warmth from the first moments of daylight.
I don’t often talk about gear, because I’m more interested in process and narrative, but for the kinds of shots I was getting at the wharf you need one very important and expensive tool: a telephoto lens. I was using a 400mm 5.6 prime L Series Canon lens mounted with a Sigma converter to a Sony A7Rii body. I love this combination. The color, contrast and sharpness all are great, and it gives you the ability to pull tightly cropped expressions from wildlife. You have to have a long lens to shoot wildlife responsibly. Yes, they have made the wharf their home, but they are still wild and should be respected as such.
There is a landing on the east facing side of the wharf which gets the most sun the earliest and this is where the babies sleep with their mamas. How is it that nobody is fighting over this space, we do not know and can only conclude that it is because of the ferocity of mothers and their desire to keep their brood safe and close. Apparently, those battle have already been won, and the males prance around on the other beams fighting for prime spots.
Most living things are constantly adapting to the changes in the environment. The Sea Lions didn’t ask for the wharf, but they use it to their advantage and the same goes for most humans, I believe. It is only when businesses, governments and other organizations achieve the skills, the knowledge and the will to develop sustainably that we will have a future more full of promise than fear.
There are a million valid approaches to photography and any of them can lead a dedicated lover of light to a path of making successful images. The goal of all photography is the same, however: it is to be seen. The experience of looking at a photograph is the thing that we are contributing to the public. What kind of looking experience are you hoping to create?
I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between photography that is inner directed versus externally stimulated. This is a key distinction and I’m not saying that one is better than the other, but if you want your work to have style and vision then you might need to think about this nexus. It always comes down to the question: why are you taking the photograph? What is your motivation?
When you photograph a product or a lifestyle shot you have certain goals. You are trying to please a client and to create beautiful images that they can use confidently to represent their brand. You want to tell a story about the experience that they are offering. This helps you to understand how to direct the elements of your photography. When you do work for a client, you start with the purpose of the shot.
You can do the same thing for yourself, too. You just have to think about it as though you are your own boss, because you are. There is a tremendous urge in the era of social media to create images that are pleasing to the public. Sunsets, puppies, etc. Are these things genuinely your interests or are they just an effective way of getting your work seen? They say that is one of the first rules of marketing. If you want to sell lots of stuff then choose something that people already like. Some things are more appealing than others, even though it is really up to the public to decide. If you are making things that people like, where is your point of view being expressed?
That is why it is important to do personal work as well as the work that is going to pay the bills. If you spend time scratching your own itch, if you figure out what it is you really like and why, then your work will grow. The thing is, you can still like the things that other people like. You don’t have to avoid the sunsets just because they are popular. That’s not what I’m saying. I think that it is important to carve out your own inner driven photography, too.
What does it mean to do inner driven photography? I guess it is easier to explain the opposite. Yesterday morning I was writing and finishing up my coffee when I checked the window in the kitchen that faces the ocean and I could see the clouds already starting to light up. At that moment, I could tell that if I didn’t move quickly I would miss my favorite part of the sunrise light. So, I got my stuff together and met the morning light ready to get those shots. This was not motivated by my feelings about where we are as humans, well not entirely. Maybe it is just how you think about it, too. But it was the indication of color in the sky that alerted me to the possibility of an amazing shot. And, since we are in the business of getting things seen it is important to be there to get those shots, too.
The shots that I am working on that are more inner driven and personal are portraits of Madison that we do on our hikes. Those are more meaningful to me because of our connection. We are in love and we share some amazing areas of overlap in our interests. She is a beautiful woman and a model so when we work together our personal feelings are enhanced by our professional skills. By combining these elements, my hope is to create images that will be profoundly individual but also universal. Love is one of the great powers that humans have access to and this is a project that is based in love.
Since it is flu season, however, not every morning is available for hiking into the cold to get a beautiful photo. So, I have been going solo. And yesterday morning it was obviously going to be an amazing day. The sunrise was mystical as any day breaking over the sanctuary of Monterey Bay has ever been. Huge sets bringing high tide steamers through crashed against the cliff and increased the drama and energy of the morning. The sunrise is a symbol of hope and renewal. At least it is for me. It is also an amazing show. My love for sunrise and sunset is genuine as anything ever has been. As a painter, I am continually amazed by my own capacity for shock.
The qualities of light in the morning are varied. First of all, you have the blue hour. This is when the darkness of space gradually gives way to the day’s illumination in silver blue tones. We read color symbolically, so this time of day is often a mood that invites calm and reflection if not melancholy, but if there is the right amount of clouds in the sky, then that blue is violently interrupted by shocking hues of red and pink that are brighter and more gauche than any neon artist’s dreams. In fact, there is something so lacking in subtlety about the sunrise that it is extremely tasteless. No rich person would ever choose to paint the sunrise the way it happens on those most colorful days. No, that kind of color is too much for old money. It begs too much attention. It is narcissistic. It is a performer on the stage. To some people, the sunrise is a dancing bear working for peanuts.
Not for us, though. For us, it is inspiration. It is courage with color. It is aggressive happiness. The sunrise is a message of more than hope. It is screaming at us. This is your essence. You are this beautiful, crass, dramatic extreme moment of wild untamed energy. The sunrise is our true calling. We are eternal, we are infinite, we are light. When you see it and recognize it your entire being fills with that energy. And then the first five minutes of light after the sun crosses that horizon line are the softest most golden rays of light you will ever have access to. There is no softbox in the world, no reflector, no strobe, no led, no nothing that can compare to the beauty of that light. This is a subtle light, though, and it is exactly the kind of light that old money loves. It is gold, it is finite, it is rare. This special light can be used in a number of valuable ways. It is only five minutes past sunrise and you have already experienced three radically different kinds of light. This is what it means to be a photographer to me.
Some days the light is amazing. Some days the ocean offers you a dynamic swell that you could just chase and watch all day. Some days you get both. This is when it is very difficult to do anything but feast. It is an embarrassment of riches and you feel like you are shooting fish in a barrel, but they are still fish.
When the waves are good, Santa Cruz focuses on the ocean. Most people are trying to get in position to get some waves. For me, I get as much satisfaction from a great photograph of a wave as a ride on one, and I can use the photos afterwards, so I stick with the camera. I think that some people can do all kinds of things, and I do work in a lot of different media already. But, I like to keep my obsession squarely directed towards the act of making photos. I don’t dilute any of my drive. I focus it on photography and let making images be supremely important to me.
Also, it gives me the opportunity to photograph professional surfers or my friends who want photos. Photographing surfing is difficult. You need the right equipment and a lot of knowledge. Angles and timing are even more important when you are trying to capture the act of riding a moving ramp of water that wraps around the reef hitting moments of light and reflection that create magical sparks of interest in the photos.
Yesterday my friend Sasha hit me up mid-day with a report of some good waves and so I met him somewhere cool and got a few photos. Standing on the beach looking through a 400mm lens watching the sets and trying to pick out my buddy from the pack of non-descript wetsuit-wearing surfers is a challenge for sure. There are so many distractions from the birds to the people walking by and the waves themselves are constantly drawing your attention. As you wait for someone to take off on a peak you see a grinding barrel down the beach. It takes a lot of timing, patience and self-control to stick with one surfer and try to get them shots. Yesterday, we got some good ones. Sasha is a brilliant lawyer who also happens to love surfing and art, so we get along well and laugh at ourselves as often as possible. It’s so important to me to not take myself too seriously. You have to laugh at yourself. It is mandatory in my book. Out in the morning watching the sky painted with crazy colors that would make a hip-hop artist blush and you are standing there with a tripod and a camera. It’s funny.
Due to the popularity of surfing, there is often a lot of tension in the water. The best way to deal with this increasing tendency is to be respectful, but you see a lot of conflicts going down. There are limited amounts of waves each day and sometimes people fight over them. It happens and if nobody gets too hurt, it is funny. Of course, it is much, much better to be cool and respectful and to enjoy your time in the water peacefully. There is definitely the potential in the water to achieve a powerful state of equanimity and equilibrium. It is good for us. But, the stress of trying to compete for waves can get the best of us, too.
Yesterday was a day that couldn’t stop giving. The sunset was just as dramatic and powerful as sunrise. The cliffs were full of people watching the sunset and it was a great scene. Instead of just getting the color and the landscape I enjoyed portraying the whole scene including the sunset watchers and the guy with funny santa pajama bottoms on. You see a lot more people watching the sunset, which doesn’t make it less valuable to me. I just like to get them in the scene sometimes. That is one of the great things about living here. We see sunrises and sunsets over the water.
We are in the middle of an amazing run of weather and waves and so busy is the way to be, but I’m looking forward to a slower time coming up when I can refocus on the work that we are doing up at Wilder, which is much more inner driven and important to me. It’s all important, but I feel like that work is the greatest contribution that I have to make. You have to be the judge of your own work. You have to say what you think is good and important even if nobody else likes it. You get to decide what you put out there and what you leave behind. What other people think of it is not yours to control, and that can be difficult when people don’t see what you do, but that is the nature of art and photography.
If you want to photograph with natural light, you have to get really good at understanding how your camera reads light. Every camera setup is different and not every camera is equally good at capturing what you want, but if you work with any camera for a period of time you can discover what lighting situations work best. Looking for good light is a huge part of being a photographer, but that is only one part. Photography means writing with light, but what are you writing about?
Sometimes photographers struggle with finding a subject that inspires them, but that can be achieved through trial and error, too. The thing is, you have to figure out what you are good at and what other people want to see. That is the goal: to give people something to study.
You might need to choose a few different subjects depending on where you live but that is a super important decision. Now, the subject you choose is going to be very key to how people perceive you as a photographer, but you also need to keep growing and finding ways to keep your tools sharp.
Living in Santa Cruz, there is no shortage of beautiful scenery, but is that what makes a great photograph? Is it just being somewhere beautiful at the right time, or is it more than that? Sometimes it might be that simple, but that is not going to lead you to a personal style or a recognizable voice. I don’t think that I have enough power to resist the shots that want to be taken. When you look at a landscape, how do you make it personal? What are you looking for that nobody else sees or sees as being important?
Subject can be an entry to style all on its own. Think about Humans of New York, which is possibly one of the biggest photography projects of modern times. That has little or nothing to do with Brandon’s style as a photographer. It has to do with his desire to collect stories and to celebrate the city that he loves. Because it got big enough, his project has more than a style: it has an ethos. People want to be a part of it. It brings you serious fame and acclaim to be featured on the HONY page.
Why you choose your subjects will matter, too. What is your personal connection to what you are hunting with your camera? It isn’t necessary for there to be a clear and obvious connection. Maybe sometimes that is better left unsaid, but you want to know why you choose a subject. There are some subjects that are hard to own. All subjects are hard to own. There are so many photographers working today and getting great shots that it is really important to do everything you can to set yourself aside from the crowd.
Here in Santa Cruz we have a mixture of different cultural things that can make good subjects. We have the waves, we have skateparks, we have mountains, redwoods, wildlife and beautiful people. We have tons of possible subjects for photographers to choose, but what happens is usually everyone tends to go in the same direction, and it is not that hard to figure out why. The ocean has a huge allure for a lot of people. We are drawn to it. It has a mesmerizing quality.
I shoot lifestyle, product and commercial photography for businesses in Santa Cruz and I am always looking for good opportunities to create some content that will work well for those brands. Creativity is just what it is. You have a task and you do your best to think of new and fun ways to achieve it.
This time of year, there is a lot of good light. The angle of the sun never gets too high, so it is always somewhat soft and golden. Plus, the sunrise and sunset each day doesn’t have that much time in between. We get some amazing color at daybreak and at dusk and it’s hard to imagine many photographers resisting the call of those tones.
We are in a period of the month right now where the moon is already set by the time the sun goes down. The nights are cold and wet. The air is clean and stings your face in the morning when you go out to a pre-dawn car and head out to shoot. Being out for that kind of beauty in the morning is a great way to start the day. You have to be ready early, though, because the colorful part of the sunrise sometimes happens a full thirty minutes before sunrise. It’s good to know what the weather is doing so that you have some idea of if you need to be out there super early or what. It is probably a good idea just to always get out there early so that you have that as a habit. Even if there is no great early morning color, you can always make some interesting shots before the first light of day. Plus, you will be out there warming up your skills so that when the light peaks the way you want it to it will be easier to capture what you want.
Even though photography only involves pushing a button as the consummate act of creation it is actually a difficult skill. All it takes to fire a gun is to pull the trigger, but there is a huge difference between shooters.
Santa Cruz is a surf town, a college town, an organic farming town. These are the things that define us. There are other factors, of course, but those are core to who we are. I think that your subject matter is best to have something personal and something about the place you are working. You should both be expressing something unique to your own experience and something that is useful to the people who live where you work.