Light, the most important ingredient in the Holy Trinity of Photography. I compared light, color and texture to mirepoix in cooking. To take this analogy a step farther, light is the perfect olive oil, the best cheese, the perfectly cooked pasta in italian cuisine. With these you can create a wonderful dish, without them it’s never going to make the grade. So it is with light. Controlling the subtlety of light and shadow are what make the difference between a master photographer and an amateur. Seeing the possibilities in a scene and controlling the elements in post are the true measure of the image maker.
In the days of pre-digital, a.k.a. film, knowing how to control the exposure and the latitude of your film choice was everything. Knowing what to expose for and what to print for is what made photographers like Ansel Adams the greats that they were. For color photographers like Jay Maisel, the same holds true, different eras but same knowledge of how light worked with their film. To fully understand how important this is, one has to have knowledge of the the Zone System. Yes, we photograph in a different world now, but gaining some of this knowledge has great value if you’re serious about your work.
I surely can’t compare my work to those greats, but I was lucky to have been formally educated in Zone theory. Although I thought it somewhat boring at the time. I’m thankful now for the instruction from my professor Arnold Gassan. The inspiration that I gain every time I see a photograph with beautiful, well controlled light is what keeps me striving to make better work. Light can be beautifully captured in so many ways, it is a constant motivation for me. Plenty of times I’ve found myself not really feeling in the mood to shoot, then I see the light changing or shadows moving and suddenly I can’t stop myself. I grab my camera and off I go…
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The author Stephen King has said that he forces himself to write at least 1000 words everyday. When asked why, he responded that if he missed a day he feared he’d never be able to write again. I’m not sure that I feel the exact same way about making photographs but there is something to the idea.
Since I’ve started making a image everyday as a matter of habit, I’m often reminded of some advice I got early in my career. I was working as an assistant for the photographer turned film director Neal Slavin. Neal was always very prolific, seeming to always have a book or some other ongoing personal project in the works. This made him very inspirational to me. He once told me, and I’m paraphrasing, that you have to shoot a lot, as much as you can, because it takes a long time to develop your “voice” photographically. This has always stuck with me and I’ve found it to be very true. A unique photographic vision can be compared to a jazz musicians “voice” with their instrument. Many people play a great sax but none sound exactly like Charlie Parker.
I know that everyday I have to make a photograph, so I now look at the world around me in terms of photographs. Ever since the start of my project, when I see something that interests me, my first thought is “does it work as a picture”. Honestly, most do not, but that thought process exercises the visual muscles. Additionally, when I’m not sure if it totally works, I take the photo. I’ve grown to trust myself that there might be something there. In many cases, I’ve made images that have really surprised me. The icing on the cake is that I’ve returned to some of those scenes and found that they no longer exist, A wall has been painted, a tree removed, a building torn down. In those cases, I’m always happy I made that photo…
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I’ve compared Light, Color and Texture in photographs to mirepoix in cooking. Without these basics it’s hard to get a truly great photograph. In italian and french cuisine, onions, celery and carrots are mirepoix, without exception. However, in cajun cooking, green peppers get substituted for carrots, as they don’t grow well in swampy ground. Just as with this change in cooking, color is the most subtle and changeable in photographic recipe. Where as texture is relatively dependent on light, color can be used in almost every lighting situation. On flat days, I’m always thinking about color stories first.
Interestingly, I often shoot an image because I’m drawn to the color but end up making it black and white. It’s not my intention when I shoot it but when I get into doing post-production I force myself to look at a black and white version. Often I’ll work with what I think is a color image, tweaking contrast etc. in B&W, with the idea that if I get nice tones it should really look great in color. Then I fall in love with the B&W version. Other times it is very clear that the image just falls flat as black and white.
I’m a huge fan of color in extreme lighting conditions. Very low light, nighttime traffic or buildings and my favorite shooting in “the gloaming”. A true gloaming is that precious few moments at twilight, on clear nights, where all lights come into complete balance. Stoplights, street lamps, car headlights and the sky are all within a half stop. Even with a film camera, just push the button and you get them all, no need for Photoshop. Those who’ve transitioned from film to digital will appreciate my love for this time the most. One of my bucket list projects is to do a book of gloaming photos, ahh so many ideas so little time…
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When I’m out looking for photographs I sometimes feel like I’m channeling Mondrian. I’m always as looking for grids with shapes or color that moves your eye around the photo. I also have a keen interest in fractal geometry, nature’s repetition of exact shapes that form larger exact shapes. The smaller the area, the more apparent the repetition. In the natural world, the farther one is away from an object the harder it is to see. Although natural objects are fascinatingly beautiful, I tend to look for the man-made equivalent. Combined with texture, light and color that equals an interesting subject to me. As a result, I find myself shooting a lot of tight/small images.
I’m always pleased when I find a larger scene that works. This can be challenging due to my love of the square format. A really wide scene requires even more space around it to crop from a standard 1:1.5 DSLR format. Of course, phones and tablets allow for square format. On occasion, I will shoot with these devices. But nothing beats the resolution and post-options presented with higher end cameras. Don’t get me wrong if I see something and it moves me and the only thing I have is my iPhone, it gets shot! That’s why the photo gods created Photoshop.
I don’t have many guidelines for the photographs I make, it’s more like preferences, not totally engraved in stone. I tend to dislike using signage or graphics of any sort. I believe that the image should be it’s own graphic statement. There are many people who shoot street art and graffiti. Some of these photos are really interesting but I try to make the graphic quality of the image stand on it’s own. I also don’t want to rely on words to instill emotion in an image. These are additional challenges to making wide photos, especially in a place like NYC. It makes those “bigger” images that much more special to me…
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I consider Light, Color and Texture to be the “Holy Trinity” of photography. Much like mirepoix in cooking, without these basic elements being present it’s impossible to make a great photograph. It’s reasonable to argue that “emotion” is essential to photographs involving people and “composition” is always critical. Agreed, but without careful consideration of the photographic mirepoix, the other elements will lack full depth of flavor. Of course, technically there is no “color” in black & white photos, but depth and range of tone serves as an equal substitution.Texture is usually the first thing that grabs my eye when deciding if I want to make a certain photograph. As all three of the “trinity” are important, I usually think about texture photographs on days with more contrasty lighting conditions. Flatter days don’t necessarily exclude textural photos but those images will be far more subtle. Texture of all sorts interests me and as a result ends up being an important part of much of my work. I love to “feel” a photograph, as well as look at it. I’ve always loved sculpture for the same reason. It great to touch public sculpture and “crazy making” for me to not be able to touch a private piece. Every sculptor that I have ever spoken with wants their work to be touched. For me a successful photograph has the same result, one can feel the texture with their eyes.
Living in New York City, I feel happily bombarded with texture everywhere I look. On certain days and at certain times of day, I can’t make it off my block without making a photo of some kind of interesting texture. One of the things I love is to see how the same texture looks/feels at the same time of day but at different times of year. It’s an endless combination of visual ingredients.
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A square is not “square” , it’s way cool. Square photographic images have a long history in commercial photography. There was a time, proceeding both the turn of the 21st century and digital imaging, that the square was king. The reason for this revolved around one word “Hasselblad”.
Hasselblad was the darling of most commercial photographers pre-1990. It’s simple function and extraordinary collection of super sharp lenses made it by far the best camera system available in the days BP (before Photoshop). The 2 1/4 inch square format (yes, there were some less popular format backs available) had but one flaw, most print output was either vertical or horizontal. The quality of the glass made the loss in size less significant but if forced creatives to actually crop the image. Then along came Mamiya and the RB/RZ 67 cameras.
With the advent of 6 X 7cm image size and the simple rotating back, creatives no longer had to visualize cropping. Never mind that the glass couldn’t hold a candle to Hasselblad or that the functionality/durability of the camera itself was a bit of an ergonomic mess. Photographers were forced to either carry multiple camera systems or switch camps completely. For those on the receiving end of the “chromes”, it was now easy to see vertical and horizontal, less cropping was required, so the square fell out of favor. But it’s beauty could never be denied.
Fast forward to the birth of Instagram and the square format is re-born. Of course, now you can shoot vertical on Instagram and I think that’s fine if you prefer. Yes, it’s fair to say that not every photo works in a square, squares require more thought in composition. However, I believe the square looks far better on this wonderful platform. As a result the square has regained it’s rightful place as the sovereign of photographic imagery…
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The idea that beautiful images can be created from things we pass by everyday is not new. After years as a relatively successful commercial photographer, I’d come to a place that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue shooting. So, I decided to start a project last year to make a new photograph everyday for a year, the only requirement was to make myself happy. No clients, no pressure, no time constraints, no production or budget to worry about. The only rule was make a new image daily that I liked. Would this be difficult? I thought it might be, I mean what would I shoot. I was never the type to “take” pictures, I was the type that liked to “make” pictures from nothing. I found almost immediately that the problem was not creating one image that I liked, it was that I was making many, an embarrassment of riches of sorts.
Now, I think that it is important to note that I was never the type to walk around with a camera. As matter of fact, I purposely left my camera at home on vacations, etc.. Photography was what I did for a living and I put great value on the idea that it is important just to look at things outside the lens. Just experience the light, color and texture of the world around you. I believed it made the work I did in the studio or on location stronger. Now I find that I think about those things differently knowing that I have to make a photo everyday, it’s changed how I look at everything, so much so that now I can’t stop…
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