Photograph the World

September 11, 2011 Comments Off on Photograph the World

I used to be an archaeologist. I spent the better part of six years excavating archaeological sites in the Southeast, Midwest, Southwest, and South America. I was drawn to the profession at college after taking a few anthropology classes. More advanced classes in archaeology allowed me to dive deeper into specific research projects. The University of Kentucky has an amazing collection of artifacts and records from 1930s excavations directed under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). An old tobacco warehouse on campus – it was Kentucky, after all – was filled with thousands of boxes from those early projects. The information is so voluminous that even to this day much of it has not been brought to light. As I was going through the records in writing my senior thesis, I was mesmerized by the old photographs. Each and every black and white photograph, it seemed, was perfectly framed and stunning in its clarity.

When I started doing archaeological fieldwork, photography was still in the pre-digital age. We would always have two 35mm SLR cameras on site – one with color film and one with black and white. The black and white film wasn’t because archaeologists are hopelessly anachronistic – though some certainly are – it was because black and white photos were much cheaper to publish. (The difference in publishing costs is now much less, and of course we now have Photoshop to eliminate the need for two separate cameras.) Most of the time one person was assigned to take pictures on the site, presumably someone who knew a little about photography. I was always a little disappointed, however, when I would later see the processed photographs. They were good, but I would always naively expect they would look like those old WPA photographs. Instead there were misplaced shadows, things weren’t framed correctly, or somebody’s lunchbox was sitting in the background, needlessly grabbing too much attention. Looking back now, however, I probably shouldn’t complain too much about those days, because in subsequent years it got worse – much worse. The digital age led to small point-and-shoot cameras that anyone could use. And anyone did, as the designated photographer on the site gave way to three or four people – none of whom had any actual training or experience in photography. And often a picture was taken by the person who was simply closest to the camera at the time. My suggestions that more time and care should be made in taking pictures were often met with shrugs and rolled eyes. Or they would misunderstand and simply take more pictures, so instead of having ten mediocre pictures of something, we now had twenty. I feel sorry for future generations of archaeologists, who will begin their careers sifting through the photographs taken today. I fear most will be of little value.

My father was a gifted photographer. He had an impressive collection of cameras, including the beautiful Rolieflex in the picture below. In my teenage years he attempted to interest me in photography. He would show me how to use a light meter, what f-stop and shutter speed meant, etc. “Photograph the world. Years from now, you will wish you had more good pictures”, he would say. But this was the 1980s. Cable television and computers were invading homes, not to mention VCRs and video games. The digital age was upon us, and though the onslaught of small digital cameras was still a decade away, I quickly lost interest in his traditional ways. Regretfully I didn’t take to his teachings more. Alas, youth is wasted on the young.

When my father passed away a few years ago, I reflected more on some of his accomplishments. I don’t know why it takes someone dying for us to appreciate all the good they had in them, but sadly it often does. Some of his photographs of old Escondido, CA, his hometown, hang on the wall of my parent’s office. His classical black and white images are timeless, and seeing them one day reminded me of those old WPA photos, and how I sat pouring over them in that warehouse basement all those years ago. I’ve since looked at pictures with a more critical eye – I’m twenty years late to the party in my father’s mind, but I’m starting to get there.

Photograph by Jonathan Bushèe

Photograph by Jonathan Bushèe

For inspiration, there are several woodworkers who are also talented photographers. When you visit the Benchcrafted website and blog, you immediately notice the stunning photography. Father John and Jameel Abraham are accomplished photographers. The pictures they produce are some of the most professional looking images we have in woodworking today. They are in the tool making business, and fully understand that their exquisite pictures go a long way in selling their product. The Abrahams often use a white studio backdrop and lighting kits. This is a standard set of equipment that is probably mandatory for any professional woodworker or toolmaker. The cash outlay for a basic kit is modest, so even hobbyist woodworkers should consider investing in one. You may not think you need light stands with umbrellas and a white backdrop, but the pictures below speak for themselves. How do they compare to the pictures of your last completed project?

 Chris Schwarz’ Lost Art Press blog always has excellent photography. His black and white pictures often have perfect contrast, and the use of shadows gives each scene an artistic quality. His series of photographs showing his tool chest build – two of which are shown below – are especially pleasing to the eye. It is obvious Schwarz does not simply take a camera out, step back a few paces, and snap a shot or two. The consistent quality of his photography suggests careful planning and forethought go into each picture.

Other photographs I enjoy are those by Adam Cherubini, as part of his Arts & Mysteries column with Popular Woodworking. For those who aren’t aware, Cherubini seeks to learn and understand woodworking from a pre-industrial 18th Century perspective. He even wears the clothes to match. His photographs are always true to his methods, as each picture creates a setting appropriate for the subject matter. In other words, he seems to be conscious of everything that shows in the frame, knowing that a random 21st century object peering out from behind the workbench would ruin the authenticity of the message. I often look at his photographs and the study the backgrounds as much as the foreground. His pictures are a great lesson in how you often need to step back and give as much attention to the forest as the trees.

Source: The Arts & Mysteries of Hand Tools (CD) by Adam Cherubini and Popular Woodworking

Source: The Arts & Mysteries of Hand Tools (CD) by Adam Cherubini and Popular Woodworking

The invention of color photography has allowed us to capture the brilliant colors of the world, but for me a photograph with color has no inherent advantages over one without. Black and white photography is not used today to invoke an old-timey feel. Removing color from a picture mitigates inherent biases we all carry about certain colors. Bright reds and yellows invoke caution, and instantly catch our attention (in the animal world, these are referred to as “warning colors”). Muted greens and browns are seen as natural, earth tones that fade into the background. (I use the term ‘black and white’ here, but it’s actually a misnomer for what we often see. ‘Grayscale’ would be a more accurate description of pictures with white, black, and shades of gray.) By rendering a picture black and white, we neutralize the content to some degree, helping us to focus on the true subject of the picture. With the use of photo editing software, we can also apply filters to pictures, again to help neutralize the stark contrast between some colors. In my post on workshops, I did this with the two pictures of my shop. The first picture below is the original photograph straight from the camera. The second picture – the one posted on my blog – tarnishes the colors, softening them to eliminate the bright hues. In the first, unaltered photograph, that Home Depot bucket was just too bright for me. It contributed nothing to the context of the picture, but it was the brightest object in the scene. Some might criticize the use of filters, claiming they unnecessarily distort reality. But a camera is no different than an artist’s paintbrush. It creates a scene in the eyes and imagination of its maker. And digital editing software did not invent color manipulation of photographs. Filters were placed over the camera lens – my father had several –for a century before the computer came along.


Digital cameras have put photography into the hands of nearly everyone, and this is a good thing. I won’t espouse on the advantages and disadvantages of digital photography – we’ve all seen those lists a million times. Digital photography allows us to take almost an infinite number of pictures without the worry of wasting precious film. Pictures can be viewed instantly and simply discarded with the push of a button if need be. Because of this we take far more pictures today than our parents ever did. But has the number of great pictures increased? When I looked at those WPA photos, I was amazed at how few poor pictures there were in the whole lot. I probably looked at over 500 photos, and as I recall only a small handful had some flaw – shadows obscuring things, out of focus, etc (though I’m sure I have some selective memory here). In those days film was expensive, and pictures were not taken in haste. I wonder if professional photographers cringe at the term “point and shoot”, as it reduces their well-honed craft to a few simplistic steps. While good cameras are capable of taking better pictures than bad cameras, the quality of a picture still largely rests on the expertise of the photographer. This fact is as true today as it was 100 years ago – “advanced” digital technology has not changed that. In the hands of a good photographer, even the cheapest camera can produce nice results because there is more to taking a picture than having the latest technology. Proper planning, along with some knowledge and experience, are still needed to produce great photography. With just a little practice, however, almost anyone with a decent compact digital camera can take good pictures.

Too often small, inexpensive digital cameras – or even cell phone cameras – are used to take really important pictures. Good cameras have better lenses that can produce improved depth of field, color balance, and contrast. (The race for who can have the most megapixels is only of interest to the ultimate hard-core digital fanatic. In today’s world of 72 dpi images for the web, getting a picture to look good on a computer screen is the goal for most.) A woodworker will spend untold weeks on a project, only to document it by taking their phone out and quickly snapping a few photos. I see a lot of really good photography on woodworking forums, websites, and blogs. I see just as many photos that look like they were either taken in haste or with a poor camera, or probably, both. When taking pictures of things that matter, we owe it to ourselves to invest in a good quality camera. For the professional woodworker, I would think that a high quality Digital SLR (DSLR) would be a necessity. The rest of us can probably get by with a decent compact digital. (The term “old school” probably gets overused, but if you are still using a traditional film camera, you are absolutely, undeniably old school.)

At least a few of these cameras probably shouldn't be taking pictures of your finest work.

By no means do I consider myself an excellent photographer. I am as guilty as anyone at mindlessly snapping quick photos rather than taking more time and care. So in no way do I feel qualified to give a list of recommendations on how to improve someone else’s photography, so this list is as much a reminder for myself as anything else.

  • Match the camera to the subject matter. A cell phone camera is fine for Facebook. Use your better camera for the things you are proud of.
  • Use a tripod. Nothing prevents blurry shots more easily than a tripod. It doesn’t have to be a fancy expensive one. I have one of those funny flexible gorillapods and it works fine.
  • Be aware of your backgrounds. The next time you take a picture for a blog, a forum, or for posterity, think about the intended message of the photograph. If you are documenting the use of a traditional woodworking tool or technique, the can of WD-40 in the background is probably out of context.
  • Take a class. Your local community college likely has a photography class at a modest price. Larger photography studios or retailers may also hold workshops. Great photography has an artistic flair, some of which probably can’t be fully learned. But you aren’t looking to be Ansel Adams. With a little practice and guidance I bet anyone’s photography skills can greatly improve.
  • Seek out good photography. Magazines and photography blogs are a great resource. If your local art museum has an exhibit on photography, consider it an excuse to have a cultural moment.
  • Experiment with color schemes. See what happens when you turn a photograph black and white, or apply a soft color filter. Adobe Photoshop is the most popular photo editing software, but it can be pricey for a hobbyist. There are some free alternatives, such as PhotoFiltre, that can do the basics. (Open source geeks will recommend GIMP – I’m not a fan for a few reasons. One is the offensive name. The other is that I find the interface to be clunky and slow. But maybe that’s from using Photoshop for so many years.)

Hopefully this will help to kick start your own photography. But before you try any of the above, think back to your childhood, and how your mother or father had their own hobbies and skills that for whatever reason you may not have fully embraced. If you are lucky enough to still have them in this world, give them a call. It doesn’t take much to turn regret into opportunity.

More:

Photography from Jameel and Father John Abraham can be found on the Benchcrafted blog, as well as Jameel’s personal blog, Khalaf Oud Luthiery. A collection of Father John Abraham’s commercial work can be found here. Truly great photography.

Chris Schwarz’ series of photographs documenting his tool chest build are beautiful. The first in the series of black and white photos can be found here, and they continue over about a two month span.

Adam Cherubini’s Arts & Mysteries series in Popular Woodworking features Adam’s outstanding photography. A collection of his articles is available on CD in the Popular Woodworking store for a very modest price.

Woodcentral recently started a messageboard devoted to Photography. Seems like a good place to start if have questions about how to photograph that Chippendale highboy you just finished.

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