Refining Your Vision

A few of my favorite photographs over the past six months

I recently wrote about my Paris project which involved taking a month break from work, moving to Paris, and dedicating a majority of my time to refining my approach to photography and growing as a creative.

As a photographer, one of the most frustrating yet fulfilling aspects of the craft is finding your style. This is something that I believe constantly evolves, partly because we as people are constantly growing and partly because, as a creative, we’re (I’m?) never satisfied with our work. In addition to never being satisfied, we remain curious about all forms of art around us – from landscapes to portraiture to street, etc.

I often spent time during the late afternoons in Paris reviewing and editing my photographs taken that morning. In addition to editing, I would also review some of my favorite artists’ work (Henri Cartier-Bresson, Vivian Maier, Brassaï, and Robert Frank to name a few) or sit down at my favorite café and review my personal work – mainly in written form. My thought process focused on pushing myself creatively (mornings) as well as technically (afternoons) as I’m equally interested in the art and science behind photography. One afternoon, I asked myself:

What do my favorite photographs that I’ve created have in common? And without having the photos in front of me, I started to create a list of commonalities that looked something like this

I had no idea such a simple question would result in such an insightful answer, and more questions. It immediately provided me with clarity around both creative and technical roadblocks I had been dealing with, mainly the following areas:

Color: Mainly color profiles, presets, and film. I often hear about how hard black and white photography is – how removing color places a greater emphasis on the subject matter and story being told, but coming from originally shooting Neopan 1600 with a Canon AE1… wow, color is tough. There are so many different profiles and I find that while color can be a tremendous benefit to your image, it can equally cause an overwhelming amount of distraction from the focus of the image.

As far as “look”, I tend to prefer a more natural look and often seek out a pastel, or even muted, look when processing more than I normally would. This is one area I’m very interested in exploring more with my Hasselblad in the next six to twelve months. After years of review, I realized two things:

1. How overly processed my initial digital photographs were (it’s almost like someone that puts too much make up or cologne on… they have no idea until it’s pointed out or compared to others. Yikes!) and how I did not like the end results. I want to think it was a combination of being overly eager to process/edit and the desire to create an absolute breathtaking image. While High Dynamic Range and heavily processed photographs may work for some, I’ve learned that I want to be as far away as possible from this type of art.

2. How drawn I am to Kodak Portra 400 and Fuji 400H. That said, I understand there are vast differences between Kodak Portra (reds and yellows) when compared to Fuji400H (blues and greens) but I am honestly not experienced enough to know which way I lean. And maybe the answer is different for the situation? For example – Portrat with Portraiture for skin tons while Fuji fulfills landscape and detail shots? This is my working hypothesis and something I don’t believe I’ll be able to confirm until I take a deep dive with my Hasselblad. I’ll be sure to write a detailed post comparing and noting my findings.

Genres and their Relationships: Street, Landscape, Portraits, and Travel. But wait, isn’t Travel a combination of street (the people who live and wander within the environment), landscape (the natural surroundings that make up said environment), and portraits (the detailed documentation of said people)? Travel vs. Street has always confused me so I’ve decided that Travel = Street, Landscape, and Portraits. At least that’s how I see the world.

Street Photography in Tokyo, Japan

Landscape Photography in San Francisco, California

Portrait Photography in Paris, France

Commonalities: Finally, the commonalties, both technical and creative, found in some of my favorite photographs that I’ve created. The image at the top of this post reflects some of those photographs (aside from the square 1:1 crop thanks to Layout! I actually shouldn’t complain given the Hasselblad format).

1. Color – see above!

2. People – I’ve noticed that I enjoy photographing people albeit in a candid/street photography method. I have also noticed that I tend to single out an individual from a larger group to complement the foreground/background in the image.

3. 35mm or Wider – This one is tough for my to wrap my head around. I absolutely love shooting the Sony FE 55mm f/1.8. It is by far, the most beautiful lens I’ve ever used (and I’ve spent a lot of time with the Leica 35mm f/1.4 and 24mm f/1.4, both borrowed, of course!) but my photographs say otherwise. For starters, the Sony FE 35mm f/2.8 seems to be the clear winner in terms of number of favorites, however the Sony FE 16 – 35mm f/4.0 is responsible for my all-time favorite photograph (see image examples below):

Sony FE 55mm f/1.8

Sony FE 35mm f/2.8

Leica 24mm f/1.8

Sony FE 16-35mm f/4.0

This concept of “wide” is definitely how I tend to view the world – exaggerated, grand, slightly distorted, all encompassing, etc. – however, I’m pushing myself to simplify my work and will continue to evaluate these findings while shooting more and more with the Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 and Hasselblad Zeiss 80mm f/2.8. Needless to say, I love all of the examples above and it demonstrates that I’m capable of creating beautiful work across focal lengths.

4. Little to no planning – When I truly became serious about photography and about my work, I would also plan my shoot. And this might make more sense as a wedding photographer or a landscape photographer, but I’ve learned that, even with landscape, the less you plan the better your photographs. I still find myself looking through 500px, Flickr, or other sources of inspiration before visiting a location but no longer plan a “7:15pm sunset shoot at the pier” because I tend to get better photographs as a result of avoiding this planning, in turn I feel more creative in the moment, and mot importantly – I don’t have to watch my expectations crash and burn as those planned shoots never work out the way you intended them to.

5. Light Editing / Processing – This is pretty straightforward. As I mentioned when I first starting taking my work seriously, I over processed my photographs. It was bad, but a necessary lesson to learn. I continue to reduce the amount of editing by focusing on adjusting less significant portions of my image as well as making sure that when I shoot, I’m capturing my vision in the camera. Straight out of the camera vs. processing is an area I’ve been thinking about quite a bit and will definitely be talking more about this in the future. In the meantime, focusing less on “I’ll merge these photographs later” or “I’ll crop him/her out in Lightroom” and focusing more on slowing down and creating photographs within the camera will lead to stronger work and less time in post.

6. Aperture Priority – I’ve been shooting Aperture Priority the past two years and have grown to appreciate the creative flexibility it provides. To me, “A” or “Av” is a perfect balance of creative expression and letting the technology in the camera do some of the work for you. As I continue to grow, I’ve been leaning more towards full Manual “M” to help me create those photographs within the camera (see #5 Light Editing / Processing) as Aperture Priority sometimes makes a good enough decision but not the best decision. I see myself always using Aperture Priority for certain styles like Street which require fast reactions, but will most likely finally take the training wheels off and shoot full manual with my Sony A7ii and Hasselblad.

7. Created in the last 18 Months - I’m not going to spend too much time on this one given that our travel the past eighteen months has been out.of.control. We’ve travelled to Tokyo, Kyoto, Beijing, San Miguel de Allende, Napa Valley, Sonoma, Paris, Versailles, etc. Traveling like a crazy person allows for a fresh perspective on the world around you resulting in feeling incredibly creative, optimistic, and not to mention giving your camera plenty of new scenes to capture.

8. Preference for the most recent – I realize that as I continue to grow, I like my most recent images more and more. I’m assuming part of this is due to becoming a better overall photographer – by leveraging these learning’s I’m writing about, by taking greater risks, and by pushing myself out of my comfort zone – and the other part of this due to my evolving style aligning with my most recent photographs. Who knows, this one is a tough call for me but I felt it was important enough to note.

9. Balanced Exposure – Exposure is something I’m fascinated by. Not only because it’s the foundation of what makes up a photograph but also because it’s such a muddy area when it comes to technically correct exposure vs. creative exposure. There’s no right answer. Sure, there is a pixel-perfect value and exact histogram chart you can find on the web, but it ultimately comes down to subjective look and feel. I believe I started out underexposing, or even bracketing, my shots and walked my way all the way up to over-exposure to the point of being too hot.

I’ve found myself dialing it back down to somewhere between mid to slightly overexposed images in the sense of some highlight clippings. This is an area I’m incredibly excited to experiment more with when it comes to digital vs. film. For example, in digital photography I should be exposing my A7ii for the highlights to avoid clipping an arbitrary numeric value resulting in a more under-exposed looked where with my Hasselblad and color negative film photography, I should be metering for the shadows and overexposing by a stop of two (at least!) to avoid the muddy under exposed look and ensure my negatives are more dense and the resulting images more contrasty and saturated. Ironically, I find myself shooting my A7ii like I would a Hasselblad.

10, Golden Hour and/or Backlit – “it’s all about the light”, man did that make me roll my eyes a lot when I first started shooting. And while I don’t believe there is “bad light” or “light that you can’t shoot in”, I do believe there is better light. And those early morning, early evening, and dusk shots really help transform a good concept to a great photograph.

Based on my analysis, I plan to incorporate some changes to my day to day shooting and will continue to focus more on manual shooting. The two biggest areas of exploration for me coming out of all of this are exposure as well as the difference and similarities between digital and film photography. I touched on this re: Kodak vs. Fuji under color, but still have plenty to research and experience. With the recent addition of my beautiful Hasselblad 500 c/m medium format film camera (gifted to me by my amazing wife, Sam) I plan to dedicate a significant amount of time exploring these relationships between film and digital, exposure techniques, color profiles, and ranges vs. pixel values in the coming months. 

Images in this post were taken with the Sony A7 Mark ii, Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA, Sony Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA, Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 16-35mm f/4.0 ZA OOS, and Leica 24mm f/1.4 Summilux.