Choosing Portfolio Images

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALa Sal Mountains, Utah

Deciding which of your images is a “portfolio” image is one that involves experience, honesty, and confidence. By portfolio I mean an image that you would not hesitate to share as representative of your work, one that you would be proud to put your signature on. While each of us may arrive at that decision differently, there are patterns and general concepts worth considering that can be helpful. It’s especially important for those who return from a workshop or extended photo trip with hundreds if not thousands of images.

Discussing the process of selecting “keepers” from the rest wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the importance of studying other photographers and their work. And that extends naturally to all art in general. I’m always surprised to learn how little photographers know of those who came before us, and while it’s not necessary to become a historian, it is vitally important when it comes to judging ones own work.

Brooks Jensen says, “Photographers who lack visual literacy—a knowlwdge of the photographers and photographs of the past—do not have the benefits of historical photographs challenging them. Visual literacy means knowing what those who came before you thought, knowing what those who came before you did, knowing what those who came before you accomplished and where they failed. More importantly, visual literacy provides us with more that just a record of what was done. It also provides us with an excellence legacy that shows us what succeeded—and what still succeeds, years or decades later.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHunter Canyon, Utah

How do you go about gaining visual literacy? Start by looking at photography books by photographers you respect. I’ve mentioned my favorites here many times, and the key thing is to find those who have attained respect by the general public and their peers. Study the greats, learn to appreciate what they were attempting to do with their art, and not so much whether you like it. From there you can branch out to other similar art forms and artists, especially painters. All of these instill a deeper sense of how we see, appreciate, and respond to visual art.

At the most fundamental level, judging ones own work often comes down to a gut feeling that tells us we feel good about the image. We often hear people say things like, “I can’t tell you exactly what I’m looking for, but I know it when I see it.” Unfortunately, relying on a “gut” feeling or some intangible way of recognizing a good image doesn’t help when we’re developing this skill. While I’ve often used this same type of approach, there are some distinct qualities and identifible elements that I usually see in images I select as portfolio quality.

1. Optimal capture – This is a broad category, but in general covers all of the technical and aesthetic issues involved with actually making a photograph. Sharpness, depth of field, optimal exposure, and overall quality of the raw file. While most of these are technical in nature, there are aesthetic considerations as well. “Optimal exposure,” for example, does not always mean capturing every single tonality, but rather capturing the most essential tonal values that bring life to a composition.

2. Strong composition – The way an image is put together, meaning how the various elements interact and relate to each other, is what ultimately defines strong composition. An alternate, and arguably more important way of thinking about composition is to examine the way a viewer is led through the image. Is the main subject clear and uncluttered? Are there obvious or not so obvious distractions? Does everything in the frame work harmoniously with the subject or overall design of the image? If so to all the above, then things are looking good so far…

3. Quality of light – I often think of light as the “glue” that holds an image together — it adds depth, dimension, mood, and drama, all critical components to a successful landscape image. When we think of beauty, richness, warmth, evocativeness, and qualities of the sublime, light is always at the center of the these emotions. In fact I would argue it’s the single most important factor. When you look at the masters of painting and photography, quality of light is a common thread to success. Composition and visual design is something that can be learned and practiced, and I teach it in every workshop. Learning awareness of light and its infinite variations is much more difficult, and requires time, dedication, and lots of practice.

When all of these are considered carefully and critically, and manage to meet or exceed my personal standards, then I start to feel really confident about adding that 4th star in Lightroom that to me signifies “portfolio image.” The final test for me is to make a print, and if that again meets similar standards, then I’m confident about my decision at that point in time.

An interesting yet unsurprising pattern is that I have demoted and continue to demote images as time goes by from portfolio to non-portfolio. While this happens less frequently now than it did years ago, it shows how my standards and my photography have evolved over time—in a positive way for sure. Yes it’s difficult to demote an image, and that can lead to self-doubt and insecurity about ones work. But in the long run I have found it really does refine your ability to look more critically at your work and with less attachment to any single image. And it’s the attachment to expectations and results that gets us into trouble.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANorth of Moab, Utah

Our culture is so biased towards quick results, with technology becoming ever more prevalent in our lives. And for many things it works great and really does let you focus on the important things. Or so it would seem. The most important work a photographer does is and always will be the act of seeing. Awareness of light and shadow, color and gesture, and the interplay and connection between what you see and feel. This is not a result, but a fluid and ever changing process that slowly shapes your vision and perception of the world. The “capture” is the technical execution of a mechanical process, but the real work is done days, weeks, months, and years before the shutter button is pressed.

When you appreciate and approach photography from this perspective, knowing that before you do anything with the camera, you have to see first, then the image itself becomes less important. The potential in seeing, in developing a personal vision, becomes the driving creative force, and rewards you in ways you would never have imagined. Of course you will make images, and that has to happen in order to have portfolio images. But discovering the raw materials for interpretation is really where the excitement comes from for me, and I think should for you as well.

It happens to all of us, myself included—we love the magical sound of the shutter. It does feel good, knowing you just captured a slice of time, with the potential to be a your best image yet. But I quickly realized that the failures far outnumbered the successes, and if I was going to stay motivated and inspired to return over and over again to the same landscapes, I had to adopt a different mindset, one that valued the experience over the captures.

While this may all sound like a lot to consider, it takes courage to put your work out there as the very best you’ve done up-to that moment. Yet therein lies the essence what it means to be committed to the process versus the results. It’s the best you’ve done, without excuses or compromises. It also means you are open to the future, to improvement, to growth. In the book Mastery by Robert Greene, he says, “If your work comes from a place deep within, its authenticity will be communicated.”

And this is what we all should want from the work we hold up as our very best.

Spring in Arches and Canyonlands – Workshop Report

 

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It’s been a few weeks since my return from the Spring in Arches and Canyonlands workshop in Utah, and my schedule has been full with work and personal demands, including two more sold out local workshops since then. Nonetheless, I did want to share some thoughts, photos, and a testimonial from one of the students.

Visiting and photographing in the southwest is always a profound experience, regardless of whether it’s the first time or the 10th time, as it was for me. Nature has a way of exposing our human fragility in a way that is humbling and profound, and the vast landscapes around Moab Utah never disappoint in that regard. The overriding sentiments I hear usually focus on basic questions and emotions such as; “How is this all possible?”, and “How do I photograph this in a convincing way?” Yet that is a perfect starting point for any creative work, and especially a workshop because it challenges and pushes boundaries. Fear of failure becomes magnified to a degree that seems hard to handle. It forces the basic question I always ask of students. “Why do you photograph?”

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In the Spring In Arches and Canyonlands workshop, students faced this question, and as usual I saw their answers develop over the week we spent together. Images improved tremendously over a few short days, as well as confidence, and a clearer photographic vision. In order to achieve that, we discussed camera technique, composition, aesthetics of image making, and simple things like when and when not to use a circular polarizer. We also spent time learning how to follow your vision from the field into Lightroom where creative interpretation is so critical. We also had great laughs, enjoyed each others company at breakfast, lunch, and dinner (when we actually found time to eat!)

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On our last day of the workshop, we didn’t have a classroom session in order to give everyone a break from instruction. I did however let everyone know I would be at my favorite cafe (Red Rock Cafe) for lunch to answer questions if they had any. To my surprise, almost every student showed up with their laptops and lists of questions, and we enjoyed more discussion on all matters photography.

To me that’s the best part of a workshop; developing meaningful relationships with people who share a common interest and passion for photography, nature, and life in general. That carries over to all of the time we spend together; a majestic overlook at Dead Horse State Park during sunset, a cool morning inside a sublime canyon photographing reflections in a lush stream, or having a hearty breakfast at the Jail House Cafe after having spent hours in the field. We come from our separate paths of life and embark on a short but significant journey of discovery and friendship. And this workshop was no exception. Thanks to all the students who attended for giving me the privilege to embark on another meaningful experience.

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I also want to share what one student in particular had to say about the workshop and one of his images. Thanks Miles for the very kind and humbling words.

©Miles Josephson

©Miles Josephson

“After the first day of the Spring in Arches and Canyonlands workshop, my wife, Judy, and I knew we were in for something special. These two national parks and the surrounding areas were unique and as beautiful as any I had ever been to. The photographic opportunities were endless and Robert’s intimate knowledge of the area and planning before we got there allowed us to maximize the use of our time. Rising hours before sunrise and finishing the day after the sun had set was a commitment happily made by everyone in the group, nice easygoing people from many walks of life who shared a common goal. That was to enjoy the time and the place and to make better images. As hard as we worked, Robert worked just as hard or harder, both in the classroom and in the field.

Robert has often talked and written that it’s okay to fail in the process of learning. I am old enough to be cynical when people say things like that. But it was true. While I failed many times, particularly during the first two or three days, Robert was always there to help and encourage, but never to criticize in any negative way. And when that proverbial light bulb finally went off and my pictures began to reflect many of the things Robert had been drumming into our heads, I realized how much I had learned in such a short, but intense period of time. I had become more of a master of my equipment instead of the other way around. Robert helped me learn how to see and find images that had previously been invisible to me. And, starting from scratch on the first day, I learned enough about Lightroom to get the most out of the images I had made.
Robert, I want to thank you again for all your extra effort in making the workshop a truly incredible experience. Don’t say “it was my job”, because lots of people have jobs where only the minimum level of acceptable performance is given. You went far beyond that. The amount we all learned was extraordinary and we even had a few laughs in the process. You can’t ask for more than that.”- Miles Josephson, CT

Making Of A Print – “Reflection, Mill Creek Canyon, Utah”

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 Olympus E-M1, f8@1/10 sec, ISO 200, 24mm, no filters

Making fine art prints is mostly about the details. And I don’t mean actual detail in the image, but rather the subtle considerations that separate good from great.

I received an email from a photographer recently who had decided to try Canson Infinity paper based on my recommendation. For me, it’s crucial when making any kind of recommendation to speak from experience, and truly have the other persons best interest in mind. There are so many motives these days for others to recommend products, that I generally stay away from things I’m not absolutely sure about, even when I have good reason to think it’s a good product or service. So that’s just a long way of saying I only recommend something when I trust and believe in it myself.

I was really pleased when the photographer had this to say about his experience:

I have a big exhibition coming up I wondered if the Canson would show any noticeable improvement in my prints. Well a box of Baryta Photographique duly arrived this morning and I set to work soft proofing and printing a selection of images and I have to say I was very impressed. Ok we aren’t talking a massive difference between [the competitor's] Baryta paper and the Canson but there was definitely a better range of tonality and detail in shadow areas. So thanks for the tip!
My response was simply that in most cases the difference between a good print and a great print are in fact subtle. But that subtlety is critical to raise a print to a higher level of expression, where the photograph truly can transcend the medium and convey more clearly what the artist saw and felt. Whether that’s shadow detail, or increased tonal range, or better color, it all works together as a complete whole. While we can look at the individual components, it’s their sum that makes a great print. It’s only when one of those fails that we notice the individual parts.

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16 x 20 Reflection, Mill Creek Canyon / Printed on Canson Rag Photographique 310 / Epson 3880

With Reflection, Mill Creek Canyon, the challenge was to maintain depth and detail in the deep shadow areas of the image  while at the same time printing it onto a mat paper to have a more fine art look and feel.  I wanted to use a rag paper like Canson Photographique because I love the way it reproduces color in a painterly fashion than say a more reflective surface like fiber or luster. The whole composition is built up from the rocks in the shallow pool of water, and it has a sense of growing dramatically up to sun lit rock at the top of the image. This to me needed to remain dramatic yet “quiet”, in a way that conveys how I felt making the image. It was eerily quiet and still, and the light had a warmth that I’ve never quite experienced before.

For me this is the ultimate test of an image, and the print on this paper holds the detail in the vegetation and rocks, but also helps impart that warm glow of  direct light without losing the softness of the moment. And since that’s how I want the image to be experienced, I choose a paper that helps rather than distracts from that goal.

“We don’t make a photograph just with a camera, we bring to the act of photography all the books we have read, the movies we have seen, the music we have heard, the people we have loved.” – Ansel Adams

June 2014 Free Desktop Wallpaper – Castle Rock

The June 2014 Free Desktop Wallpaper is now available for download. I’ve hiked the Fisher Towers Trail outside of Moab Utah many times, and still feel like I’m barely scratching the surface of its photographic potential. In the distance catching the first rays of light is Castle Rock, awe inspiring from near or far.

As always, come closer to nature in the Moab, Utah.

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1920 x 1200

1920 x 1080

1680 x 1050

1280 x 800

Instructions:

First determine your screen size. Your Current Resolution Is:

Then click on the link for the correct size. When the image opens in a new browser window, right click on the image and select “Set as Wallpaper” (on a Mac, select “Use Image as Desktop Picture”).

Photo Journal: Fisher Towers Trail

Olympus OD-D E-M1, f/8@ 1/20 sec, ISO 200, 24mm, no filters

Creative composition is often a matter of being really attuned to the subtleties of the landscape. In Utah those subtleties are often difficult to see because there’s just so much going on. It’s an overflow of sensory information in every conceivable way, and vision is often superseded by the mental activity of taking it all in. It can be difficult for the photographer who wants to capture more than just a postcard. I like postcards for what they are, a nice rendition of a vista. But it leaves little to the imagination beyond what it shows the viewer, a nice landscape and nothing more.

For an image to convey more, it needs to be personal, introspective perhaps, and certainly attuned to the subtleties I mentioned above. For me that means getting really focused about exactly what I see and feel, and letting the rest fall away, without worrying about “missing a shot.” One approach is to make less images, and spend more time following a specific idea or subject that leads to clearer seeing.

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The image above is a good example of where following an instinct can lead to a better composition, and ultimately one that conveys a perspective. Note how the image captures great light and ambiance, but nontheless is rather busy and ambiguous at the same time. What is it really about? The moon, the flowers, the mesa in the distance, or the large foreground rock? I knew what it was about, but that’s not effectively conveyed in the image – it fails in that respect, an all too familiar occurrence for me. It may have good leading lines and overall balance, but it lacks a strong perspective. In short, it lacks a purposeful and simple composition that has the potential to convey something of what the photographer felt.

The final image is a result of following an idea or developing the “main character” as I like to tell students. That character was the large rock, which now dominates the scene and allows the other parts of the image to breath without coming into conflict. When we talk about harmony in composition, that’s the goal – to let all of the different visual elements work together. When that happens, the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts, an idea that comes from the Gestalt psychology.

I made the image with the Olympus E-M1 on a tripod and the Olympus 12mm f/2.0 lens (becomes 24mm with the camera.) I focused on the backside of the rock at f/8 and checked the cliffs in the distance afterwards on the LCD screen to make sure I had enough depth of field.

The original raw file before any processing in Lightroom. The main work was to use subtle dodging and burning to lead the viewers eye and create depth.

 

Get close, get intimate, show the viewer what you see and feel. Think of a conversation between two people shouting across a room versus sitting at a small table in an intimate setting. If you want to share your version of the lansdscape, find a way to show your perspective, not the postcard image which just shouts at your viewers.

Agree, disagree? Let me know in the comments below. I’ll also be sharing some more behind the scenes photos from our workshop which starts tomorrow!