Start Simple

Start Simple

From time to time I come across a willing new photographer who has just bought his first camera and is looking for advice on where to start. Unfortunately, quite often a broad request such as “What I should do first?” is often directed at social media. It should not come as a surprise that we are all eager to help, regardless of our knowledge or expertise. After all, photography can’t be that hard, can it?

However, some communal advice I encounter wakes up the worst of my human instincts. Calm down Olaf, no need to go berserk!

Today, I am not going to write a long, in-depth article but let me share some simple advice for those of you who have bought your first camera and don’t have a clue what to do next.

  • No, your first step should not be learning Photoshop!
  • No, you should not worry about sharpening settings!
  • No, you don’t need all those accessories everyone is trying to sell you.
  • No, you don’t need this $500 camera bag to impress your friends.

Here is what you should do.

  • Yes, read the manual.
  • Yes, get to know your camera.
  • Yes, read about shutter speed, aperture and exposure compensation.
  • Yes, read tons of photographic, non-technical books.

Most importantly, find a small city plaza, street corner or a sport park near your home. Take your new camera with you and visit the same location daily or as often as you can.

Observe the light throughout the day and see how things change as the sun moves across the horizon. Try photographing this one location for a few weeks every day. Play with exposure compensation and learn to master the light. Then start imagining how the same scene would look if you underexpose (make the picture darker) or overexpose (make the picture brighter). Don’t be afraid to go crazy with the exposure compensation dial (read about it in your camera’s manual and use it).

Keep arranging the same elements in as many ways as you can. Try to construct your images from the fewest items possible (hint: focus on shapes, lines, etc.). Think as if you were designing a puzzle by changing your perspective.

The bottom line is this: learn to observe, get to know how light interacts with elements around you and compose simple imagery! Then go from there.

Below please find imagery containing a minimal number of elements. I enjoy this type of visual discovery as it helps me to train my eye to see the light, line and perspective. After all, that’s all you need.

 

NEW!

 

London / March 9 – 11, 2018

Berlin / March 16 – 18, 2018

Toronto / June 8 – 10, 2018

New York / June 15 – 17, 2018

Vancouver / August 10 – 12, 2018

Paris / September 21 – 23, 2018

San Francisco – November 2018

Sydney – late 2018

Make sure to reserve your spot early!

 

2018 © Olafphoto. All rights reserved

Composition – “The Strongest Way of Seeing”

One of the greatest advantages of film cameras was cost (you are probably rolling your eyes but please stay with me). The roll of film, 24 or 36, provided the photographer with limitations and forced her/him to operate within those limits. As a result, each scene was evaluated quite carefully before the shutter button was pressed. In fact, many of us didn’t press the button at all, if an attentive examination of a subject, frame and light didn’t warrant a strong outcome.

Digital photography changed everything. Sure, for those who subscribe to strong discipline and constraint, the immediate feedback could be a superb learning tool. Unfortunately, the ease of pressing the shutter button associated with the “it doesn’t cost me anything” notion has created a huge mass of thoughtless, poorly made photographs or rather snapshots.

Recently, I showed a set of photographs to a group of people. Some of the images were very carefully crafted but the majority were snapshots taken without much thought. Interestingly enough, most of those images were viewed at a very fast pace, while those taken with thought and effort caused viewers to pause and stare at them a little bit longer than the others. Why? What drew people to those few images?

They all had one thing in common: everything in the photo was organized in a way that was somehow pleasing to the eye. Each element in the photo served a purpose. There was no waste, no unnecessary clutter. In other words, those images had a very strong composition.

Bruce Barnbaum in his excellent book, “The Art of Photography,” defines composition as “an arrangement of the parts of a work or art so as to form a unified, harmonious whole.” Indeed, very often we see a really simple image, which at first sight appears to be easy to capture, but that’s far from the truth. In fact, the simplest images are the most difficult to make!

I always think about composition as a type of puzzle but with a catch. You must fit all the elements in but you cannot move them around. The only way to arrange available pieces into one harmonious whole is to reposition yourself. By moving around the subject, getting closer or further away, higher or lower, you are able to arrange the elements and solve the puzzle. The fewer elements you use in the picture, the stronger the composition becomes.

Indeed, it is a very difficult task. It not only requires concentration but also intense intellectual and artistic effort. Many times when I speak about composing and framing I hear, “Come on, I’m just taking snapshots.” That’s fine with me but if you are already operating a camera, why not put at least minimal effort in arranging elements in the frame to get the most impact.

While viewing images, fine art photographs or a birthday party snapshot, I can immediately tell whether or not the photographer paid attention to composition.

After each trip or a photo session, Kasia and I sit down and discuss our work. We point out our failures (and there are many) and underline our successful compositions. I find this self-assessment is a great exercise.

The subject of composition is one of the most important in the art of photography. Therefore, this year we will write extensively about it, share with you our thoughts and provide you with relevant examples. Stay tuned.

Here are a few images I took during my recent morning drive along highway 7 from Coquitlam to Hope, BC, Canada. It is a very pleasant drive mostly through rural scenery, with the type of vistas that require very careful arrangement in order to produce a strong photograph. I have taken this route many times and each time I see new opportunities.

All images were captured with the Fuji X-T1, XF 14mm F2.8, XF 56mm F1.2 and Fuji X100s.

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Chawathil First Nation Sacred Heart Church – I have photographed this church on several occasions but I have never been satisfied with the results. While it is beautifully located, the landscape is quite busy with buildings, poles and other elements, which makes composition difficult. The most recent photo is my favourite. I arrived at the location quite early in the morning and just after heavy rain. I immediately noticed a small puddle of water in the front of the church, creating a reflection. With the church positioned in the middle of the photograph with slightly darkened corners, I was able to put emphasis on the church and minimize the clutter. While positioning your subject in the middle of the frame is not usually recommended, here it works wonders. Also please note the choice of 1:1 format. This way I was able to keep the composition intact and eliminate unnecessary elements on the right and left.

 

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Photographed from the side, this bridge seemed boring. Going below it and shooting a wide-angle lens facing up made this composition much more exciting. I had to watch both corners to make sure I didn’t include any unnecessary elements. I placed the main pillar at the bottom of the photograph to emphasise the structure. Stormy skies also helped.

 

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Many farms in the area contain a large number of elements and therefore pose the danger of clutter (we never ever remove anything from photos in Photoshop – it’s our rule!). The curved path caught my eye and I had to choose only a few elements on the right and on the left to complete the composition. 

 

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There were a few houses on the left and on the right. I focused on the red structure and groups of three. It works well with the blue sky and green grass.

 

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2014 © Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

The Mission District – a visual feast of mural art

While researching our recent photography trip to San Francisco and area, we put the Mission District high on our list of things to do. Some Internet guides characterize this area as dangerous to visit, citing frequent shootings and robberies. We’re glad we didn’t listen.

Named for Mission Dolores, founded in 1776, the Mission District is San Francisco’s oldest neighbourhood. The main attractions today are walls and fences decorated with murals, which were initiated by the Chicano Art Mural Movement of the 1970s and inspired by the traditional Mexican paintings made famous by Diego Rivera.

Indeed, while walking around this vibrant neighbourhood we experienced a visual feast of mural art such as we have never experienced before. Almost every street and alley offers stunning pieces of street art.

We captured some of the murals with our Fuji X100s and Fuji X-Pro1. Here are a few images.

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We have downloaded the latest version of Irridient Developer 2.3 and we highly recommend this program for your X-Trans files treatment. This is the only program that does true justice to the Fuji superb X-Trans technology.

 

© Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

No Colour Necessary

With the surge in digital imaging technology, nearly everyone has gained access to the world of photography. One would think that the elimination of cost barriers, ease of use and abundance of processes would yield a large amount of exceptional work.

Quite the opposite! Photography has become a form of visual “fast food.” You don’t need to look far to find an avalanche of images: barbeque photos, birthday photos, parties, flowers, sunsets, sunrises etc. The majority of snapshots are taken without much thought and without any artistic or visual effort – just for the sake of taking them. After all, it is so easy to press the button, again and again and again…

But this is only a half the problem. Then, all these photographs are being constantly uploaded on the Internet – not for private viewing – they are there for others to enjoy too. Blurry photos are not a problem, ten of the same photo of a barbeque, not a problem. After all, you might want to see the grill and the meat on it from all angles. I guess you get my point.

What is the solution to this hysteria of snapping and sharing? Unfortunately there is none. There is, however, one area of photography that has remained relatively unaffected by this epidemic – it is a black and white photography. Why has black and white photography remained relatively immune to this problem? Because it requires some effort!

I was lucky enough to start my photographic life journey with black and white film not by the choice but through necessity. Back then in communist Poland it was difficult to get film – black and white was the most accessible and cheapest. Stripped from the distraction of colour I had to focus on the importance of light, my subject and emotions.

Even today with all the wonderful tools at our disposal, I believe the best way to learn the art of photography is by starting with black and white imagery.

Black and white is both the simplest and most sophisticated of photographic disciplines. When there is no distraction in terms of colour you are forced to compose, search for the right light, experiment and focus on the subject and its emotions. You take light and transform it into lines and shapes. You wait for a decisive moment and start arranging or eliminating the elements to create one whole – your vision. Brainless snapping has no place in this process. Ted Grant said, “When you photograph people in colour, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls!” I could easily extend this line of thought to other genres of photography. Look at Ansel Adams’s landscape masterpieces. Just shades and lines – it’s raw, it’s honest, it’s beautiful. No colour necessary!

While colour has its place, in the hands of a photo snapper it can become a masquerade or visual fast food. Have you ever wondered why there are so many ads with sunsets? They are easy to consume!

Don’t get me wrong – I like colour and there are many brilliant photographers that use the colour palette with stunning results. In fact, the majority of my own work is in colour.

At the same time I found colourful photographs are easier to take. Sometimes the lack of composition or a weak subject could be masked with spectacular colours. You don’t need to indulge in a photograph. You don’t need to connect intellectually and visually with the photo – it is just there. Very often you hear people say, “What amazing colours!” The rest is not important.

It is very different with a good black & white image. Colour, your main distraction, is out of sight. Your senses immediately awaken to search for something more, something deeper and more profound. You look for forms, shapes and lines. You start de-coding the message. It takes effort to process the photographer’s message, to interpret those lines and shapes. It is a much richer experience.

So each time you find yourself at an artistic crossroads or feel a lack of inspiration, go back to seeing in black and white. You will be amazed how much better your photographic vision will get. Even your colour work will gain a new perspective and freshness.

All images but last two taken with the Fuji X-Pro1.

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© Olaf Sztaba. All Rights Reserved.