Confidence – a roller-coaster to seeing (Intro)

Confidence – a roller-coaster to seeing (Intro)

Josef Koudelka would say, “Look at something and think, this is right.” Unfortunately, it is a constant search and we often doubt if indeed “this is right.” In other words, photography and confidence (or rather lack of it) has much in common.

Wikipedia defines confidence as “a certainty about handling something.” When looking at my own experience and when working with students I’ve noticed that the subject of confidence in photography is crucially important. Not only can it determine success or failure but it can often shape the artistic direction of a photographer.

Of course, some people are naturally confident, others not so much. For me, it has never been an important determinant or characteristic, as today’s society has a tendency to put on a pedestal overconfident, disdainful or even rude individuals, then paint them as confident. I am not going to go there. Let’s stay on the subject of photographic confidence for lack of a better word.

Most people who start in photography lack confidence. This is normal or, I would argue, a highly desirable condition. Too often I come across horribly constructed images presented to the world by the author as “winners.” What’s even worse, those who have zero social breaks often attract a sizable crowd of cheerleaders, who like a magnet, are looking for another loud leader. Usually there is no hope here and no point discussing such cases any further.

When learning and practicing the craft of seeing, most people, including me, are going on an emotional roller-coaster ride. This is a normal and healthy condition. We often hear from photographers: “I don’t know if my work is good enough.”

Unfortunately, the answer they often receive is: “This is great, wonderful,” “Keep doing this.” After all, this industry is all about cheering and clapping. The logic here is to inspire and provide confidence, regardless of results – a noble idea! The problem is that many starting photographers gain what I call “fake confidence.” What many of us cheerleaders don’t even realize is that we are doing a great disservice to a generation of photographers.

Constantly assuring them that their work is great means that many continue along their path to not-seeing, which ultimately leads to huge disappointment and, in many cases, a painful divorce from photography.

There is another way. Yes, confidence in seeing comes after years of struggle, hard falls and successes but confidence should never be consistent! What do you mean, Olaf? It means that even the most successful photographers experience ups and down in their perception of their own work, especially those who have the guts to take visual risks! Josef Koudelka said, “I don’t want to reach the point from where I wouldn’t know how to go further. It’s good to set limits for oneself, but there comes a moment when we must destroy what we have constructed.” Such “destruction” comes with a hit to our confidence!

In other words, our confidence will vary as we go along our photographic journey and IT IS OK! There is no need to artificially buttress it or inject a stream of fake “you can do it” nonsense. The moments of low confidence allow us to pick up where we started and ride those high tides with new ideas. We need to trust in our own ability.

This ability grows from serious visual education. Learning about art, design and aesthetics has been put on the back seat in our productivity – and a low-price-obsessed society. Learning the craft of photography is a slow and tedious process, involving huge effort! Many people lack the time or willingness to learn a new visual language so instead, they fill the void with an “anything goes” scheme.

Interestingly, many aspiring photographers who do marvellous and innovative work lack confidence. In private settings, they often approach me and share their doubts and problems. I say to them, “I wish I could see like you.” I urge them to go out, show their work and own it! However, when you reach the point when you are becoming confident about your success, make sure to take on new visual risks. Make sure you start riding this confidence roller-coaster again.

The worst that can happen when you are riding a roller-coaster is that it could break down – when you are at the top! Then, you have a real problem on your hands. You will need many people to get you down.

 

I am preparing a series of articles about this subject. Looking forward to your own take on the subject.

Here is my latest work I did for my R-A-I-N project (the X-E3, X-T2 paired with the XF 35mm F1.4 and XF 80mm 2.8 lenses).

 

next time…

 

2018 © Olafphoto. All rights reserved

Conjuring the mindset of a start-up photographer

Conjuring the mindset of a start-up photographer

There are two pieces of wisdom shared among photographers: (1) you need to specialize, and (2) you need to find your own style.

It makes sense. There are certain segments of the photographic market when this approach is necessary. For example, wedding or commercial photography requires a specific branding strategy without which it would be difficult to attract a new clientele. However, let’s leave aside such cases.

A similar “you must specialize or die” logic is pushed at aspiring photographers who, with their fresh eyes, can bring in new visual ideas. These newcomers often don’t know what they really like: landscape, street, travel, portraiture, etc. Unfortunately, instead of focusing on visual exploration, which encompasses all genres and types of photography, they often rush into one area much too early. What’s even worse, they may stay there for the rest of their photographic lives.

Recently, during one of my workshops, I led a group of photographers from all skill and age levels. We focused on a small, quiet plaza with few elements. I said that we were going to spend hour or two at this location. It came as a surprise to most participants because there was not much there in a traditional street-photography sense. Then, we started to explore the visuals around us. After a few minutes, participants started to create imagery which could not easily be tagged as street, travel, macro or portrait. In other words, as soon as my students stopped defining what street photography should be, their creative potential exploded.

Recently I showed a photo which was taken on the street but didn’t include any people. What’s even worse, it combined numerous elements from the street and from the interior of a store. I didn’t have to wait long before I received a note saying: “This is not street photography.” Interestingly, I never claimed that it was street photography!

One of the biggest problems with creativity is that photographers chain themselves to one genre. What’s even worse, they often opt for a strict definition of what travel, landscape or street is or isn’t. Of course, there is some conceptual value in such considerations but the loss of creative potential and personal development is just staggering.

Then, there is the notion that “you must find your style.” This usually means shooting only black and white or colour, processing the images the same way, taking portraits only, etc. In other words, “your own style” is understood in a stylistic and constricted manner.

There is another way to approach this subject. How about not defining your style by voguish choices but rather by artistic and quality considerations?

Instead of being known for black and white photography, portraits or street action shots, how about making strong compositions your marker? Maybe creating imagery which has no genre boundaries could become your style? Or maybe  constant change and visual provocation (I am not talking about content provocation) could become your photographic brand?

Either way, I strongly believe that specializing too early in your hobby or career could do more damage than good. Exploring new ways of seeing, combining elements in the frame and most importantly taking visual risks should always be a high priority for every aspiring photographer. Every time I look at my imagery and see something I have done before, I know that I must fight to retain the mindset of a start-up photographer.

What is your experience? Do you find that being highly specialized is helpful or not (excluding paid or commercial work)? Do you want to explore other genres of photography but are afraid to lose your followers? What keeps you from experimenting?

It’s time to share some imagery.

 

 

 

 

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

How I learnt to stop worrying about technicals and start enjoying photography

How I learnt to stop worrying about technicals and start enjoying photography

You’ve just bought your first serious digital camera and you cannot conceal your delight. Or maybe you already have one but feel you are ready for the next phase. You want to take your interest in photography further and become a committed amateur or maybe even a semi-pro.

You spend hours looking at the perfect, gorgeous, clinically sharp images on online forums and galleries. You soak up all the advice you can find. Then, you invest in a faster computer, start backing up your images and purchase post-processing software, a lot of it. You come across numerous articles dealing with the ideal settings for sharpening. Then, you look at the photographers you follow and admire: What great post-processing! “If only I knew the settings for this photo my life would be so much easier,” you think. After experimenting with different looks, you buy a new set of presets. Then you see stunning images from another online guru and you just love them. You need to get your hands on those presets as well.

You go deeper into technical know-how, you start learning Photoshop: curves, layers, sharpening, expose-to-the-right…the cycle of technical learning seems to have no end. You jump on photo forums passionately discussing settings, software choices, lenses…you know you can do better. You are nervous when you crop your image. The thought that you will somehow lose those precious pixels terrifies you. A careful examination at 100% magnification only confirms your deepest fears. Your friend is shooting at a higher ISO?! No way! Even the smallest trace of grain turns your already-restless nights into nightmares. You are becoming obsessed with technical perfection – after all, it is digital photography and you want only the best.

The problem is…you are getting tired.

You spend very little time taking photos as most of your time is consumed with technical aspects. All these hi-tech decisions take a toll on you. You become tired and disengaged. You have thousands of unprocessed images on your hard drive because you cannot decide which simulation, program or plug-in to use. Your photography is limited to sharing your technical titbits with like members of countless online forums – 37 last time you counted. The connection, light, composition – not right now please – there are much more important things to worry about.  

What happened to the joy of photography? Why, despite all your hard work, knowledge and expertise are your images so bland? Why, despite all your commitment and effort, after taking thousands of images – are you getting nowhere?   

Have you ever gone through a similar experience?

I did to some extent in my early digital days. This spiral of technical addiction not only takes a serious toll on your seeing but turns you into a disengaged and crusty caricature of a sub-photographer. After my own experience and after talking to many successful photographers and interacting with my students, I realized how common this problem is. Of course, some people barely experience any symptoms, while others recognize the problem early and start working on it. However, many people struggle for years, with some giving up on photography entirely.

Before I discuss solutions, let me offer a disclaimer. I am not against technical knowledge or expertise. There are many important facets of digital photography which to some extent should be pursued by every photographer, depending on their interests and subject matter. However, if this approach starts swamping artistic and visual considerations, you may need to take action. Please note: graphic artists who create their visual art in software are not the subject of this article. I am referring here to the craft of photography.

What are the solutions?

The first step is to recognize that the problem exists. If you cannot stop buying new gear or lenses without a clear purpose, if you spend more time in front of your computer than in the field, if you feel frustrated with post-processing choices and participate in countless technical-oriented this vs. that discussions – you may need to make some drastic changes.

First, you need to simplify your gear. Identify the lenses or cameras you don’t use and sell them. Leave only two, maximum three lenses and go out shooting with one at a time. Ideally, if you are into street or travel photography reduce your equipment to just one camera and one lens. You won’t believe how this simplifies your seeing.

(For the last few months I have been shooting almost exclusively with the X100F. I quickly realized that I didn’t need anything else).

Second, shift your focus from technical know-how to visual know-how. Observe light, work on your framing skills, find yourself an innovative visual project and pursue it. When looking at other people’s work, ignore the technical qualities but look for emotional punch, the arrangement of elements within the frame, lighting, etc.

Third, try to outsource most functions to your camera so you can focus on seeing and crafting the image. Turn off most information in your viewfinder so your frame stays unobstructed and free of technical clutter. Set up your ISO at Auto 200-6,400 and don’t be afraid of grain. If you have trouble with the manual focus, let the camera do it for you. I am always amazed how some photographic “gurus” grimace at people who use autofocus – I DO IT MOST OF THE TIME!

Fourth, avoid technical forums and discussions and instead focus on the visual qualities of each photograph.

Fifth, create two, simple, do-it-all presets – one for colour and one for black and white photography and apply them to all your photographs. I personally apply customised Classic Chrome and ACROS film simulations to 95% of my photographs. With one press of the button my images are processed and ready. Instead of dwelling on technical aspects I spend my time examining the visual aspects of each photograph. I often create a few images from one file by cropping the image in so many ways (I’ll write more about this great exercise soon).

Sixthspend more time with painters, sculptors and visual artists and talk to them about inspiration, lighting, artistic choices, etc. Extend your circle of photographic friends, lean toward those who talk about visual aspects of photography.

Seventh – print your work, create books, work on meaningful projects.

Most importantly, reclaim your joy of photography!

Feel free to share your own solutions – what works and what doesn’t!

 

It’s time to share some of my latest work.

This image is from my project “Encounters” – I have always been fascinated by random encounters on the streets of our cities and towns. I am sure you’ve glanced at a stranger passing by or someone sitting in a coffee shop and your sight locked for a split second, you don’t really know why. Are those fleeting encounters random or is the universe pulling us together for reasons we don’t know?

 

Here is more of our latest work shot mostly with the X-T2 and the XF 80mm F2.8 lens or the X-E3 paired with the XF 35mm F1.4

 

Next time…

 

 

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

No resolutions, please!

No resolutions, please!

This used to be my resolution time. I sat at my desk and evaluated my successes and failures of the passing year. Then, I would jot down my New Year’s resolutions. It was as if those few words embedded on the LCD screen of my iPad would change my photographic life forever. Not anymore!

I learnt that it is not about resolutions, plans or even aspirations – all elusive and fleeting. It is more about finding the courage to let go.  

I know, it feels so good to make resolutions. Sometimes they are as grand as changing careers, starting your own firm or succeeding in a project, getting a new camera or taking just one blockbuster image. For many it is a feeling of belonging to a group, a way of thinking or a certain style.  

Either way, resolutions are usually flags planted in front of us in the hope they will boost us to follow the right path. Then, as the New Year progresses, we become so engrossed with reaching those flags that we stop being ourselves – we become efficiency machines, gurus of steps and improvements to put us on a pedestal in our times.

Resolutions work on an industrial, business or maybe even a personal level. However, if viewed as a creative endeavour, photography needs exactly the opposite. It needs tension and conflict, chaos, self-awareness and, most importantly, freedom from resolutions, concepts and photographic genres.

The best way to reach this freedom is to let go. When you let go, you start feeling and seeing again. No, I am not talking about those big, ambitious tasks. I am talking about those small moments of passion and rage. When was the last time you shouted out at the top of your lungs to your wife or lover “I LOVE YOU”?  When was the last time you took your children to the playground and slid with them not holding onto the bars? When was the last time you wrote a poem or a love letter? When was the last time you threw out Excel sheets, your appointment book and your cell phone and ran outside in the middle of the night to listen to the silence?

In the New Year, I want to roar to the silence and whisper to the light.

No resolutions, please!

IAll imagery shot with the X-E3 paired with the XF 80mm F2.8 or the XF 35mm F1.4

 

 

 

 

2017 © Olafphoto. All rights reserved.

First Take on the XF 80mm F2.8 OIS lens

First Take on the XF 80mm F2.8 OIS lens

I’m not going to write a full-fledged, all-in review of the brand new 80mm F2.8 R LM OIS WR Macro lens. It’s not that this superb lens doesn’t deserve one. It does! However, Jonas Rask (check out the October issue of the FujiLove Magazine) and others have already done a marvellous job of writing about this glass and I don’t think I can add much to it.

Having said that, as per multiple requests, I will share a lot of imagery taken with this lens in the next few weeks so you can judge for yourself and decide if this lens fits your needs. In general, I am not a telephoto person. My seeing feels most comfortable at 14mm, 23mm and 56mm focal lengths (21, 35 and 85 in FF terms).

I do love challenges, however, which often lead me to visual risk-taking. When I attached this new lens to the X-T2 I was heading out and shooting with this lens exclusively. There was no looking in my bag for another lens, no distractions of “the other possibilities.” My seeing was forced to search for new visuals.

Here are my first thoughts:

  • It is quite a large lens. It feels uncomfortable on the X-E3 or even X-T2. I prefer an optional battery grip for the X-T2 while shooting with this lens. With the grip, it feels much more stable and comfortable.
  • The build is top notch as is the case with all Fujinon XF lenses.
  • It is a weather-resistant (WR) lens – perfect for our Project R-A-I-N. I have been shooting with multiple WR lenses and cameras in pouring rain and have never experienced any issue.  
  • The OIS (Optical Image Stabilization) works flawlessly. For someone who shoots mostly from the hand and at this focal length, the stabilization is a life-saver.
  • The autofocus is quick – no problem there (hey, this is coming from a very slow photographer).
  • It’s a super sharp glass – so sharp that I had to scale back my usual sharpening settings. Some even say that it could be too sharp for portraiture work. I don’t know yet. I need more time to find out.
  • The micro-contrast is stunning and appears to be one notch better than other XF lenses.
  • The bokeh is beautiful but not as creamy as the XF 90mm lens (very early thought – I may flip on this one later on).

Okay, enough of this wittering. Let’s focus on imagery – all taken with the X-T2 and the XF 80mm F2.8 WR OIS lens.

 

 

 

2017 © Olafphoto. All rights reserved.