Why Am I Taking THIS Photo?

There’s an old saying that I like to believe:  Everything happens for a reason.  

I could go through the history of my life and there would be many times that I could use individual examples of points when, at the time, I asked myself, “Why did that happen?”  There are also a lot of other examples that happened, that seemed rather normal.  But when I look back at both, I say “Ahhhh, that happened to prepare me for this.” Or that’s what I like to believe.  It makes the bad memories a little easier to digest.

But for the longest time, I didn’t apply it to my photography.  But I have seen the light. (No pun intended.)

Reason.  

Even today, there are a lot of instances when I forget.  “What is the reason for this photo? Why did I take it?”

Reason.  It is the first and possibly the most important brick in your path.  In fact, as I have learned over the years, it should be within every brick in your path.  The reasons will change over time, just as everything changes.  In fact, the reasons may change not only from day to day but even from hour to hour or even minute to minute.  

I started out before digital cameras and my reasons were the same from day to day: to capture the places I had visited. With a limited budget for rolls of film and developing, I really had to pick and choose what I took photos of, at this point in my path, time of day had no influence on what I took photos of, but I had to choose wisely.  This scan of a film print of my trip to Florence, Italy in 1996 is the photo I credit to starting my photography path, is a perfect example of my first reason: to document the places I visited. 

Over time, the purchase of my first digital camera helped change my reasons.  With not having to pay for film and developing I was able to start taking photos because I thought something looked nice and/or colourful.  But that lead to something else.  I will call it “the vacuum”.  This was a time along my path when I was taking pictures just for the sake of taking pictures.  I would take the photo, and in many cases multiple photos for no other apparent reason other than to just use the camera.  Sure many of the photos were nice, but if you had asked me at the time why I took those photos.  I probably wouldn’t be able to give an answer.  Looking back at those photos I still wouldn’t be able to give an answer, and I even ask myself, “Why did I take a photo of that?”

Even today, I still catch myself asking why I did something.  The good thing is now, when I have to ask myself that question, I pull myself back and concentrate on the reason.  It reminds me of a time I was filming an episode for a TV programme.  We just got to the top of Namsan, a mountain in the downtown area of Seoul, South Korea at night.  The remains of the old city wall are still very well preserved, and there were square holes in the wall that the soldiers could shoot from to protect the city.  I crouched down and took a photo of the city through one of these holes.  The director asked me why I took that shot.  My answer was “I thought it might look cool.”  That’s when he turned off the camera and it was brought to my attention that, that couldn’t be a reason.  So I came up with a story: With South Korea being a world leader in televisions, I thought that the wall represented a TV and the hole was the screen and all the lights of Seoul below were the pixels of the screen.  Well, that didn’t go over very well either.  Do you know what?  The actual photos that I took were nothing close to the way I had hoped, and they were just plain bad. This experience is what finally made me realize once and for all that there has to be a reason for the photo and to the photo.  I took those photos thinking that they would look cool and they didn’t, because I had no real reason for taking those photos.  

One of the shots of Seoul through the hole in the wall… I know, right? Enough to ruin a career before it starts.

Having a reason will lead you down the path of composition, f-stop, and shutter speed. 

There must be a reason.  This is true for all photos, and it does not matter the situation.  Are you taking the photo with the phone that you just hurriedly pulled out of your pocket so you can post it on Facebook or Twitter? I feel that if you would like to have a better photo you have to have a bigger reason than “Just to post it.”  I would guess that the resulting photo is either going to be blurry or unflattering.  Now if that’s the look you were going for, then, great.  But chances are you weren’t. 

You have to make a quick decision, 1. Do I enjoy the moment in its entirety?  or 2. Do I want to share this experience with my friends and followers?  

If you chose #2 and pulled out your camera, make it count.  Share the experience.  The experience that made you want to share it to begin with.  Don’t just press the button or shutter at the first possible moment your finger touches it.  Relax, wait, try and get that moment that made you say to yourself, “Wow, I wish ________ was here to see and experience this,” so that ________ will be able to see it and experience it.  Chances are that if it is one of those experiences that you wished others were there to share with, it will either happen again or continue.  

For most of mainland Korea, the fog doesn’t happen often or stay for a long time. You have to decide and act fast.

If it is one of those very short experiences,  (trust me when I say I’ve had my fair share)  I smile while nodding or shaking my head in disbelief or awe of what I witnessed and I am thankful that I was able to see it and experience it.  One such situation that happened to me a while ago, I was set up waiting for the sun to rise on the coast and I noticed something fly behind me, bigger than a seagull, but I wasn’t sure of what it was.  I didn’t see anything, but as I turned back around there was a large Eurasian Eagle Owl flying about 2-3 metres in front of me and my camera.  My knees got weak and I froze as its two bright orangey-yellow eyes stared at me as it flew by.  It wasn’t until 3 minutes later that I remembered I had the camera in front of me with the shutter release in my hands.  Had I tried getting those shots of it as it flew by, I will almost guarantee that those haunting eyes would never have had the lasting effect that they had.

If you hastily press the shutter and the photo doesn’t turn out they way you hoped or remembered it, in my experience, one of 2 things might happen, and both will sour your memory of it.  The first thing is spending too much time in post-processing trying to “save” the photo.  It becomes an obsession, and after hours and hours of work, it may still not turn out the way you want or remember it. It will only turn the memory into a bad experience because you spent too much time on the post processing that it went past fun, it became “work”.  

The second thing that might happen is that the photo is so unflattering that it warps the memory that you had of the experience.  You go back and look at the photo a few months or years later and think to yourself, “That’s not exactly how I remember it.” But because you have a photo of it that doesn’t lie, you could start to think, “Well, maybe it wasn’t that great after all.”  And since it has been proven that our memories of events aren’t as sharp when we are photographing them, it will fade into the background of your mind.  Which really would be a horrible thing, because the reality was that it was a spectacular experience.

As I mentioned earlier, your reasons can and will change over time and even from time to time.  You could be shooting a rainbow to show off its colours and size for your friend in Europe to see, and then shooting a tornado that suddenly appeared to send to the local news paper or TV station. Situations can change that quickly.  

The next time you have your camera in your hand, ask yourself first, “Why am I taking this photo?”  You might surprise yourself with your answer, and by asking this question it will allow for your first step towards more meaningful photos, and it might make choices on shutter speed or depth of field easier.

In this second photo, the reason for the shot was to capture the two boys playing together both as a memory for the two boys, but also as a history shot of when I was their age playing with my brother on the beach.  I wanted to show that no matter how much the world is changing, some things pass down from generation to generation, surrounded by the strength and stability of family and friends.  I wanted to show the movement of the water, the symbol of life as it flows and to give a sense of how quickly the boys were moving and playing to show how quickly people act throughout their lives, but surrounded by the stable rocks of the mother and father (the 2 larger rocks) and the true friends (the smaller rocks) as they stand true and strong throughout their lives to serve as protection from the outside elements, the rough water on the other side of the rocks as well as a holding the stormy skies at bay.  Because of these reasons, it allowed me to choose a slower shutter speed and get a lower point of view so that the the parental rocks appeared larger. For me, the reasons have changed over time.  As I’ve said before, each brick is different, and sometimes I go back to the first reason of wanting to document the places I’ve been.  

Now, about controlling the reason… 

Oh, wait… what’s that? What do you mean I can control the reason?  Well, now.  That changes everything… But we’ll save that for another time.

The Growing Studio: Part 1

When I first started out on my photographic path, it was pretty much always outdoors. The period in my life that really ignited the spark was my time at Université Canadienne en France. I’ll save you the long version of the story, but if you’re interested you can find the nuts and bolts of it in the feature I was lucky enough to have in PIK MAGAZINE (January 2014).

99% of my photographic journey in Korea before I moved to Yangju, north of Seoul, has been landscapes. After I moved here, I tried to moving to more of a documentary urban feel. I needed to get more people into my shots. Photographing people was always a big challenge for me. I was starting to get more comfortable in getting architecture into my landscapes.

But This…

If you had told me even 6 months, no, 3 months ago that I would be doing product photography in my office in my apartment I may have spit out or choked on my coffee in disbelief and laughter.

I Never Expected This

I had just ended my contract at my school, and I was looking to finally jump into photography feet first. I set up accounts at freelancing sites Fiverr and UpWork. I quickly found that between these 2 sites, that the majority of the services and income in photography seemed to be based on editing (see: Photoshop skills) and product photography. Two things that were quite aways out of my comfort zone, with a 3rd in tow …

Lighting

The thing I feared more than photographing people was lighting. To be more specific, artificial lighting, flashes, strobes, you name it, if the light was powered by some form of electricity I avoided it as much as I could. But I figured if I was going to make a career out of this, I’d better learn how to use artificial lighting.

Staying at home, and not having to go to a 9 to 5 job, afforded me the time to actually sit down and try to learn and figure this thing out. I remembered one video in particular that I watched many years ago in amazement as Joe McNally showed the set up he had for this one particular shoot and the results from it. The way he was able to manipulate the light, (OUTSIDE! nonetheless) blew me away, and pining for the ability to be able to do something like that.

Fast forward to about a month ago, I was trying to find that video again. I was unsuccessful, but not for the reasons one might think. I couldn’t find it because for whatever reason in my head I had gotten McNally confused with Scott Kelby. I was searching and searching all over Kelby’s materials online and I couldn’t find it. So I gave up.

What it did though, was lead me to a video from 2 years ago by a man I had never seen before… Martin Botvidsson. His YouTube style is almost as far away from the Peter McKinnons, Chris Haus, and Casey Neistats of the world as you can get. And that’s a good thing.

It did take a little while for me to get accustomed to his style. It didn’t have the feel of what I had become used to from watching Peter and Chris. When I first started watching his videos, it felt like he really had not much of a direction, just a turn on the video camera and see what comes out. With that being said, I really did enjoy his sense of humour.

After a watching a few videos, I realized that it wasn’t that he didn’t have a specific shot in mind when he starts a video, it was that he is taking you through his artistic mindset and evolution of the photoshoot. His videos are both refreshing and educational, not to mention confidence building. The step by step process and the trial and error that he shows is a tremendous help for those of us just starting out.

I have learnt so much from his videos that I encourage anyone who is interested in small studio, product photography to give his channel a watch. Not everyone is going to have the amount of equipment that he has invested, but he also knows this and gears his tutorials to everyone with any camera and at least 1 off camera flash. He even has one video where he uses only his phone and an LED light panel.

Now he does have over 22,000 subscribers, so I suppose he is hardly a secret in the product photo world, but I felt I needed to introduce him to those of you, who like myself, are new to the area and view him as being a huge contributor to where I’m headed with my in apartment studio…

To be continued…

Homemade Studio Lighting V2.0

2 weeks ago, I made a post about the do-it-yourself (diy) studio lighting that I did to keep me busy, but also to help me learn more about how to use artificial lighting in a home studio setting.

I posted some results from those shots on the subsequent post as well as on Instagram and Facebook. For the better part of those 2 weeks, the fact that the straws were multi-coloured seemed to have very little if any effect to the final versions of the shots…

Until …

I did one shot perpendicular with a glass that I had big expectations for. It looked fairly good on the camera. It was the one shot I was expecting the most from and was going to be the centrepiece to that day’s shoot. Until I saw it on the computer screen. The colours of the straws were reflecting off of the glass and were – with my editing skillset – an impossibility to eliminate with my photo editing software.

Back to the Drawing Board

I had thought at first, “Well, let’s not do that type of shot again.” As a person trying to improve to the point of landing product photography clients, this type of thinking will not cut it. Having to sacrifice quality because I didn’t want to make a new one is a horrible idea.

Out to the stores. Store after store, coloured straws, coloured straws. No one even sold all white straws. But as luck would have it, a last ditch “Hey let’s take a look here, it can’t hurt to try,” unveiled a jackpot. Not only did they have packages of straws that were of one colour, that colour was black!

It also provided the chance to select different sized bowls for the reflection dishes.

Knowledge is Power

My wife was more than generous in helping with not only the cutting of the straws, which took the most amount of time the first go of it. She also strung them on the tape to make the honeycombs for the bowls.

I had bought many more packages of straws this time because I also wanted to make one for my makeshift strip box. Knowing what I could do with the strip box and the parchment paper as a diffuser, I wanted even more control over that light.

My wife had finished the one for the bowl. I had thought that if I was to attach another bowl and cut a small circle at the bottom and join them top to top, I could make a type of snoot. So she made a smaller honeycomb for the (UFO) snoot.

Another change I made to this version was the back of the bowls. On version 1, my mindset was to try to use items that were in my recycling bin as much as I could. This included a thick grey plastic bag that had been used as a postal envelope to cover the back of the white plastic bowls to eliminate light leaks. I thought that the double layer was a bit of an over-kill so I used only one layer. But on the bowl that would be the front of the snoot, I used the black electrical tape that I used to put the straws together into a honeycomb. After shooting, I realized that the black tape blocked out the light, like I wanted, but it was also doing a MUCH better job than the reflecting dish on the back end. So I took off the plastic and taped it, too.

The Test

After testing out the 3 new lighting choices that my wife and I had made, I can say that 1) version 1 helped out a lot in my understanding of what I need, and 2) version 2 is working better than I could have imagined.

The next step is to start finding different things to photograph. The plants, water, and smoke are great starting points. I think they make for great practice. I think they are also great as exercises from which to build a solid base of fundamentals to expand into more complicated stagings. Stay tuned.

How To…

If you’d like to see how these were done head over to the original issue for the steps to do it yourself. The strip box ended up being a little different. If you’re interested in the steps to the strip box honeycomb, leave a note in the comment section and we’ll post an update!

Stay safe and have fun!