Shooting to Please Myself

by Flo Deems

A great camera--a Nikon SLR and later on a DSLR--and great lenses of varying focal length--well, all this should produce great images worthy of winning in competitions, right? I soon learned that what I thought was interesting and the experiments I was interested in conducting were not what the judges considered to be "quality" images deserving of first, second, third prizes or even honorable mentions! Oh, yes, I did win a few prizes in all categories. But the images I valued the most didn't impress the judges in the least.

Eventually, I came to question what it is that I want to accomplish as a photographer. Do I aim to please the judges? Or do I aim to please myself? Realizing that I really want to please myself was a most liberating feeling! Finally, I can shoot "from the heart" rather than from the head. I now make images because I find the subject matter and methods intriguing.

What's a Photo Myth?

A photo myth is a "rule" that many photographers agree on about what makes a good picture "stand out from the crowd." Some photographers focus on presenting such images that allow them to earn a living, or at least win prizes in competitions. Without standards and rules, though, there can't really be any competition. What would the judges use as criteria, without a common set of guidlines?

I mulled over what caused me to disagree with judges about what they liked versus what I liked. This resulted in an "epiphany," opening my eyes to other opportunities and ways of seeing.

Points of Agreement
That Judges Seem to Use:

1) Point of Interest: The viewer's eye needs something to land on when first seeing the image. This could also be considered the main subject in some images.

2) Rule of Thirds: This point of interest should be placed about one third of the way from the top or the bottom and also one third of the way in from the left or right side. This gives a photographer a choice of four possible points upon which to place the point of interest.

Click image for larger

3) Sharp focus for the Point of Interest: This Point of Interest/Main Subject should always be in sharp focus, or most of it, at least. But some images, such as landscapes, should have as much in focus as possible, foreground to background.

4) Four Filled Corners: Unless the image is circular or oval, some (but not all) judges want to have something in each of the four corners. Many judges disqualify an image with even one corner blank!

5) Identifiable Subject: The viewer (judge) must be able to identify the subject, unless the image is classified as an abstract. But even abstracts should follow the other "rules." Can anyone define what any judge's idea of Abstract subject matter is? Ten judges are likely to give ten different answers, with only some aspects in common.

Agreements Reconsidered:

1) Point or Center of Interest: I love to explore around in an image that doesn't seem to have a center of interest. This treatment allows our eye to roam and find something new each time we view it. In this way, many small nuances of detail, color and shape come to life.

2) Rule of Thirds: With no Identifiable Point of Interest, then we can disregard the Rule of Thirds.

3) Sharp Focus: I love soft focus, blurs, distortions, unexpected areas within the image in sharp focus--so-called selective focus. For instance: the types of wacky focus-un-focus we can get by using "crappy cameras" such as pinholes, the Holga varieties and the Lensbaby. (There's actually an annual Crappy Camera Contest!) More and more pros are exploring these new fields in which they can play around with focus.

Try the following:

* Smearing petroleum jelly on part of a clear old filter.

* Shooting through old wavy glass or modern pebbled or textured glass.

* Shooting through a rain-streaked window or screen.

* Shooting through gauzy fabric, or using a scrap of nylon stocking stretched over the lens.

* Adjusting a polarizer to get multiple layers of "intrigue" when shooting reflections.

* Slightly bending or crumpling aluminum foil or mirror-like mylar for the distorted reflections they produce.

* Shooting reflections from shiny hubcaps, car bodies and similarly uneven shiny surfaces.

* Using slow shutter speeds with camera movement (get rid of that tripod).

   - Pan with the action to keep part of the moving object in more or less sharp focus while the rest of the image will be blurred.

   - Setting slow shutter speeds while the wind is blowing leaves or flowers, or while water is running (waterfalls, ocean waves--use the tripod for these).

   - Move the camera deliberately in circles or jerks or upward or downward or diagonally.

   - With camera on the tripod, zoom in or out while the shutter is open.

4) Those Troublesome Corners: I love at least one blank corner. Why oh why oh why oh, must we always fill all our corners? I find a blank corner restful. It's hard work, sometimes, exploring around in an image and my eye is grateful when it finds a blank corner that doesn't need exploring. Sometimes, more blank "negative space," the space that is not the subject, gives a greater impact.

I've seen an image that showed a young girl in the lower right corner, wearing a bright red colored dress. The rest of the image consisted of the blank yellow wall she was sitting against. I and the editors of the magazine that published this image thought it was a fantastic image. But a lot of competition judges would toss that image.

5) Identifiable Subject: I love intrigue! (Except in politics.) I love guessing games. An image that I can't quite figure out what the subject matter is, keeps me looking at it longer than does an image in which everything is perfectly identifiable.

Exploding Out of the Box of Myths

In my first adventure outside the box, I removed the lens from the camera! How can you take a picture with no lens? We tend not to remember that this is the way photography started--a blank-walled room with a cover over the door/window with a small hole in it. This Camera Obscura showed an upside down image of the scene outside the room. Lenses came along much later.

I removed the lens and shot several frames (digital) by just pointing the camera at a colorful scene and setting the shutter speed as high as possible. What I got were very faint suggestions of colored areas. Post processing allowed me to increase saturation and contrast. My final results were very blurry areas of pastel colors that will someday make some interesting backgrounds for other subjects.

Many modern photographers have returned to these primitive lensless cameras, either making their own pinhole cameras or buying them from pinhole camera manufacturers. We can now buy pinhole body caps for many of the leading camera brands and models. Even if you're not interested in exploring pinhole photography, read on anyway. Some of the suggestions apply to film and digital cameras, as well as pinholes.

Many shoot with pinholes using film. But if you opt for the pinhole body cap for your brand of digital SLR, then you can have immediate feedback and delete what you don't like. The source for these caps has gone out of business, but there may be others. Googling may find one.

Exposure is the biggest problem with using pinhole cameras. If you know the f/stop equivalent of your pinhole, then there are charts to help figure out approximate shutter speeds. The speeds will be slow.

Composition is next in the field of uncertainties. Some of you may be able to construct a gauge to help you determine what the field of view will be. On the top of my Zero 2000 pinhole camera, I drew two lines that show me where the edges of the images will be. From the middle of the back of the camera, determined by these edges, I drew 2 other lines that show me the angle of view. The closer to the camera, the smaller the object can be. All objects and the background will be rendered in soft focus equally throughout the image.

Many pinholers consider this uncertainty factor to be part of the charm of the pinhole camera. But if you don't like not knowing what your field of view will be, then pinholing is not for you. We aim in the general direction; we can even fine-tune as much as possible with the tripod head; we can stoop down to the level of the hole; we can draw lines on the camera; we can make a cardboard angle. But still, our compositions will have elements of surprise in them.

Some lens camera people do something similar: they shoot from the hip or the chest without looking through the viewfinder. It does take a little practice, but you can eventually come close to getting what you want. Digital instant feedback is invaluable for this type of shooting.

Other Out of the Box Ideas

* Try setting the camera (pinhole, Holga/crappy, or conventional) on top of the car's steering wheel. Set a slow shutter speed of 1/4th to 1/2 second. You can allow the camera to tilt as you turn the wheel and shoot, or just wait for the straight stretches. Each time you come upon an interesting scene, press the shutter release.

* Try turning a lens around and shooting through it backwards. There are some commercially made adaptors for doing this. Remember, though, that you will lose auto-focus and auto-exposure capabilities.

* Use a microscope eyepiece or one from a binocular to hold in front of your lens--make a cardboard box mask to hold the eyepiece in.

* Or put this lens in front of a pinhole. Black tape will keep out light leaks, if you don't mind using that on your camera body.

* Use extension rings or a bellows between the pinhole body cap and the camera body.

* You might try for an anamorphic effect by making a cardboard box mask to hold a lens in it slightly skewed. I've never tried this, but it might produce interesting results.

* Try a Lensbaby for selective focus in-camera.

Trial and error and practice, once you come up with something you like, will help move you along the path from standardized to different and even all the way to "wacky and weird."

Remember - Robert Schuller advised: "Do what you can, where you are, with what you have." In photography, this translates into: "Do what you can, where you are, with the camera equipment you have." Learn to make use of its strengths and don't try to overcome its weaknesses. There's no one perfect camera kit that'll do everything for everyone.

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A Perfect World Image

Light: Quality & Direction

How We "Read" Images

How I Broke Out of the Box

A Few Examples of Breaking the Rules.

Using Props To Break the Ice

Great Photography Magazines

Photography Home Page

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