Observation – The Holy Grail of Photography

Observation – The Holy Grail of Photography

Forgotten Memory, X100F

On the surface the photographic process appears to be easy and straightforward. You grab a camera and capture whatever you like. This is true for someone who doesn’t aim at creating a photograph but rather performs the mechanical task of pressing the shutter button to take a snap.

However, if you are interested in creating a photograph, the process is much more complex. Among other things it involves emotions, observation, connection, evaluation, composition, light and some technical considerations. Today, it appears that technicals have taken a central role and occupy the minds of photographers. If I could point to one area that has been the most ignored it is the art of observation.

Elliott Erwitt described it this way: “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place…. I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” While it may sound simple, for many people it is incredibly difficult to do.  

As humans we are naturally wired to focus on important things and filter out all the rest. While such an approach has served us well over the ages, in creative photography it’s a major obstacle. In addition, our education system and our daily routine push us to see and react in a certain way. Have you noticed while walking around the city how your brain filters out the noise and visuals? We usually stroll around town without challenging what we see or how we see it.

In order to find “something interesting in an ordinary place” you must challenge your seeing. In other words, you need to break your seeing patterns and go for something new, uncomfortable and different.

While such a plan of action sounds great, it is incredible difficult to execute. The key ingredient of breaking our own seeing patterns is to go after visuals, which we miss. For example, while shooting on the streets of Vancouver, I usually include the human element into the frame. In the meantime, there are many scenes, which has no people in them but somehow they imply human activity. Another example would be shooting portraits or scenes with people but showing them in a new perspective and/or harmonizing them with the background.

There is a plethora of similar examples, which we discuss in-depth at our education and mentoring platform, Simplicity-In-Seeing. We also include specific exercises we use to break our usual seeing patterns.

What are your ways of breaking your seeing patterns?  

Here are our latest visual explorations from the streets of Vancouver as seen through the X100F viewfinder.



2017 © OLI Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.

It’s all about enjoying the process. Really?

It’s all about enjoying the process. Really?

Those who read this blog regularly know that I am fond of disclaimers. Let’s start with one then.

If you are taking photos occasionally and casually to share moments with your friends or family, this post is not addressed to you. In fact, you are probably wasting your time reading this blog.

Fear, X100F

While discussing photography or browsing articles about photography the phrase ‘it is all about the process’ became the Kool-Aid many seem to be drinking nowadays. If you don’t have an F1.2-wide smile on your face when holding a camera and if you don’t shout from the rooftops how happy you are while taking photos … you just don’t get it. After all, it’s all about the process! But what about the imagery?


If there is one place which constantly talks about the processes that lead to creating imagery, it is this blog. Please note, however, that we often use the term “Mechanics of Seeing” instead of the term “process.” The main reason we try to avoid this word is that it has been overused and twisted to the point that “process” has lost its core meaning. Recently it’s been used in the context of relaxed, leisurely, no commitment, maybe-or-maybe-not, fun-first-seeing-later, I-need-my-latte mindset while venturing out with a camera. In fact, if you approach the craft of photography seriously (another dirty word!) and focus on observation, seeing and light with the objective of creating strong imagery . . . well you’re not cool enough! After all, you should be “enjoying the process.”

Trust me, I do! Every day I walk my dog and I do enjoy the process. Each morning I get a cup of coffee at my favourite place and yes, I do enjoy the process. However, when I pick up a camera and start feeling and observing the world around me, my objective is to capture great imagery. Last time I checked, the definition of photography hasn’t changed – Wikipedia defines it as the “practice of creating durable images.” So it is about creating images after all.

Those who stopped reading above this line are probably preparing their first salvo: What’s the point of photographing if you don’t enjoy the process!? Well, there is a serious flaw in this type of reasoning! The assumption that somehow you need to be in a happy, relaxed and blissful state while taking photos is somehow not convincing, if not far-fetched.

Yes, for most people that’s how they feel and that’s okay. I often feel this way too. However, there are others who get creative, pure and honest, not necessarily in their eternal-happiness moments. In fact, while going through the history of art, music, photography you will quickly find out that the best work was often created in moments of anxiety, internal tension, confusion, fear or even depression. Don’t get me wrong! I am not a masochist who would promote such a state of mind. I am just acknowledging that some people get most creative while under pressure, feeling tense and challenged.

Trent Parke, a famous Australian photographer describes it this way: “I’m always ‘wired’, always awake, things are always rattling through my mind” and “The whole time I’m looking, everything is stopping and forming into still frames.” He describes this state of awareness as “being manic, insane.” This doesn’t sound to me like a relaxed, laissez-faire, I-don’t-care-about-images fellow.

Munch’s anxiety and hallucinations led to one of his best-known paintings, The Scream. In his book Tortured Artists, the journalist Christopher Sara said, “In the end, I’m convinced, it all starts with the same thing: a shot of intractable unpleasantness, bubbling to the surface from deep within a tortured soul.”

Ouch! Quite dark, isn’t it? Trust me, I am trying to stay as far away as I can from the commonly-parroted portrait of a suffering artist. I prefer unhinged, insatiable or unruly – take your choice!  

Just recently I was a guest on the Fujilove Podcast (also make sure to subscribe to a very informative Fujilove Magazine here) and Tomasz asked me a very important question about how I deal with dark periods in my photography.

For years I have been looking for an answer to this dilemma. However, with time I’ve learnt to embrace such phases of not-seeing. With time I noticed they somehow help me to get creative, to become hungry for new visuals. I learnt that it is fine to be dissatisfied with my own work and try to reach for the unknown. These difficult periods made me a better photographer!

To summarize, your emotions, happiness, sadness, peace or anxiety –are all part of you – and they should become an important part of your seeing. Don’t be afraid to use your mood, honeyed or not, to observe, see and create. And never, ever use the mantra “enjoy the process” as an excuse. After all, if you are a photographer, great imagery should always be your goal.

Here are our latest visual explorations from the streets of Vancouver as seen through the X100F viewfinder.



2017 © OLI Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.

A visitor, a critique session and life’s compartments

A visitor, a critique session and life’s compartments

Last weekend we had a very special visitor. Spencer Wynn, a Canadian documentary photographer, came to Vancouver as one of the stops on his coast-to-coast journey celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday. He is travelling across this great country with the GFX capturing the beauty of the land and portraits of its people. Make sure to follow his journey here.

Spencer Wynn. The image was taken with the GFX.

Here in Vancouver, Spencer spent a few hours on a photo walk with the local photographic community. Some of the images presented below were shot during the walk.

Clive, my friend, is shooting with his X-Pro2. Taken with the GFX.

Ian MacDonald is walking along a light path. 

Gord Webster – Fujifilm Canada – is working on his image.

On a different note, I was asked by a local photo community, the APAC, to adjudicate for this organization. Their request turned out to be quite timely due to our recent conversations about a healthy and honest image critique –or rather lack of such – on social media. I was well aware of the impact such a critique could have on a photographer and did my best to provide constructive but honest feedback. I was really impressed by the fact that so many photographers were brave enough to submit their imagery for the session. It was a pleasure to see photographers going beyond their normal seeing and producing such extraordinary work.  

I believe that the role of local photographic organizations where you meet in person and discuss photography is even more important today. There’s no question that the new generation of photographers tends to reduce their photographic discussions to online chatrooms but also gathers most of their knowledge from the Internet.

As a result, many shy away from photographic societies or clubs. They lose a lot of information, feedback and person-to-person exchange on photographic ideas.

If you are a local photographer, please consider joining these organizations:




It is time to get to the imagery. I would like to share with you an image titled “Life’s Compartments” taken during the Vancouver Photo Walk. Let me share with you a poem by RoseAnn V. Shawiak along with it.

“Enthralled with dimensions, travelling in many directions,

throwing caution to the wind, running headlong into the

storm called reality.

Watching life separate enjoying its compartments on

separate journeys throughout mind-filling visions of


Here are a few more images recently shot on the streets of Vancouver with the X100F, Classic Chrome or ACROS.


There are still two spots left for my July 28-31 Street Photography Workshop in Vancouver. It is going to be an intense 3 days of making friends for life, learning, exploring, taking visual risks and shooting on the streets of Vancouver. The program I have been working on for many years offers a one-of-a-kind approach to photography with the goal of unleashing your inner seeing and guiding YOU to create stunning imagery. I can’t wait to see you there. Reserve you spot here.    



2017 © OLI Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.


Going BIG on TACO

Going BIG on TACO

My day started with a splitting headache. It is not that I had BIG plans or anything – rather the usual routine of getting coffee, driving the same old route, going berserk on social media and of course suffering from writer’s block. Did I mention talking to my dog? There was no reply.

And one more thing! It was the very day I was supposed to meet with this YouTube guy…what’s his name? All I know was that it’s weird but somehow it usually stays in my head! I don’t even know why I am doing this. I don’t even know him well.

Sure, I’ve watched a few of his videos. What a geek, I thought! I am sure some people are excited (25,000 of them to be exact) to watch the guy talking his head off about camera gear. I admit, it must be fun (sometimes) to get this camera gear for free and play with all these toys. But come on? How long can you watch camera reviews? Not that I watched much – just enough to convince myself it’s not worth it.   

I don’t even know why I wanted to meet the guy. What I am going to talk about with him? I am sure he is clueless about photography! I have very little interest in spending my time talking about camera gear and, in turn, I guess he won’t be interested in my bizarre and contentious theories about “seeing.” Oh well, there was nothing else to do that day.

First, I spent five minutes trying to convince my dog to go outside – after all I will be out for two hours. Bailey (yes, I named her after my wife’s favourite drink and in my defence, they match colour-wise – I mean the drink and my dog) wasn’t happy about venturing out into the wet, miserable world of Vancouver in March!

After taking care of my beloved friend, I grabbed a camera I almost never take with me and went to meet this YouTube camera geek. I arrived at Coffee Divano (my favourite place to meet!) on time. Quite unusual for you Olaf, I thought. Then I picked a table, of course positioning myself on the right side so my new friend would be lit by gentle window light just in case I wanted to take a snap. Guess what? Things only got worse from there!

Twenty minutes later, there was still no sign of even one geek in the entire coffee shop. I’d gone through all my online feeds twice, liking some images I don’t even like (as usual). I’d stared out the window for about 10 minutes and sipped another generous dose of caffeine. He is probably playing with his Fujifilm GFX, Leica M10 and god knows what else, I thought.

I get it! If I was him and had all those toys at my disposal I wouldn’t waste time meeting with some highly opinionated and artistically unstable blogger. He might be a smart guy after all, I thought.

After exchanging a few messages and clearing up a misunderstanding (of my own making, of course), he finally showed up. My first sight of him confirmed all my assumptions. He had a blue baseball cap with some weird logo I’d never heard of matched with a classy scarf and topped off with geeky but expensive-looking glasses. What should I have expected!? This is going to be the most boring 30 minutes I’ve ever had in my life! I didn’t think I would last long talking about camera gear.

Then we started to chat. First topic – Japan and its people. How smart of him! He tried to outmanoeuvre me by starting with something interesting to grab my attention and would then take a sharp turn into gear porn. Not so fast, my friend! Not with me!! So I waited. To my surprise, our discussion about Japanese culture continued. Not only did it get super interesting but we became really engaged. Then we turned to photography! Here we go, I thought! He’ll start with his gear gospel any second now. Olaf, brace yourself! Get your ammo ready!

Then, another shocker! He actually started to talk about “seeing” and taking imagery, how he enjoys shooting with his iPhone and when he reviews equipment how he views it through the prism of creating great imagery. Then we discussed branding, YouTube and lots of unexpected stuff. He even showed me some really thoughtful, well-composed, interesting images he’d taken recently. Two full, super interesting hours and we still couldn’t stop! How strange!

This guy was riveting and witty, to-the-point, no bullshit, no politics – a straightshooter whom I started to like. Even his geeky glasses and his scarf started growing on me.

After a super fascinating discussion with heated but stimulating exchanges, we took out the cameras we’d brought. I usually take my beloved X100F to meetings but somehow this time I grabbed my plastic but super-fun Fujifilm Instax camera. He reached into his camera bag – here we go, I thought – he will probably take out some jewel I cannot afford. But guess what? He took out a polaroid-like plastic camera. We looked at each other and started laughing! “Do you usually bring a polaroid-like camera when you meet people?” I asked. “Not at all,” he said. How strange – we were in sync!  

Then it was smooth sailing. We chatted and had a great time together. All my assumptions about the guy were wrong! After all, he is right calling himself BIGHEADTACO. Indeed, his HEAD is BIG on ideas. It looks like this is a guy I could meet often and we’d have a great time together. We may even grab some TACOs! Who knew!

Make sure to check out the BIGHEADTACO YouTube channel and http://www.bigheadtaco.com for gear reviews, thoughts about photography and much more. Did I mention the great guests on his show? Don’t forget to subscribe and… grab some TACOs.

Make sure to check out BIGHEADTACO’s great article “Why crop to the cinematic aspect ratio” published at https://fujilove.com 


2017 © OLI Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.