Monday, March 25, 2013

A Surgery Documentary

 Chuck and I continue to document our respective families but chose not to continue FPJ a while back. However, sometimes personal work needs an audience, or perhaps the photographer needs one. Sometimes sharing one's images conveys to others what one cannot express in words.

 One of the most difficult experiences of my life has been the recent surgery of my 4-year-old son Isaac. We took him in for a scheduled MRI and life quickly went from "What will we have for dinner after the MRI?" to "When is his surgery scheduled for?" They found a large tumor in his cerebellum and three days later, they removed it in the course of a 9-hour surgery. Some blood, many machines and wires, blood pressure cuffs, medications and myriad hospital staff became our reality. This monotony was often, and thankfully, disturbed by friends and family. All of these elements, those that brought pain and those which provided relief were equally a part of the story and deserved their portion in the documentary.

 This set of images has some rather rapid transitions and a number of lulls. Both of these represent our experience. Much time spent waiting, sitting, watching cartoons, distracting, and consoling, while many and frequent changes found us at other times in very brief spans. In a moment, we shifted from innocence to knowledge, from a healthy son to one on the verge of catastrophe. And life began to be lived one moment after another. Life often presents rapid change, rapid transitions. As such, I intentionally avoided any attempts to smooth out this set, to fine tune it and hope that it speaks for itself outside of my background information.

 Lastly, it has been my observation that emotions are often absent in photography, save the smiles and laughs, which, while valuable, belie an existence none of us can know exclusively. Sadness and pain are real. If we choose to omit those in our documentary, we do a disservice to our remembrance and create an artificial life, bereft of the things that made us value one another more deeply. I found no reason to leave my camera at home. This is our life, after all. For good or bad, I wanted to remember it. What follows are the moments from first entering the imaging area and donning the hospital pajamas to our eventual homecoming and the beginning of a new chapter of recovery. What follows is my view of those events.


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Sunday, September 4, 2011

Framing Elements

Hey guys. Been a while. I'm trying to get one in before Tuesday--my wife and I are having a little girl that day. So, I'll be out of commission for a spell.

In the last couple posts of mine, I'm sure you noticed that I used images taken in similar environments. This has been intentional and by it, I'm hoping to make the point that an image might be taken in many different ways. Many of our homes are not photo friendly. It can be frustrating, between the clutter and imperfect wall hangings. A good photographer can see beyond that, though, to find order amidst disorder. My photo heroes are able to do this, including Steve McCurry and Sam Abell. We have talked about visual organization before and will continue to because it's elemental in documentary work (or any other type for that matter).

Look for items which might act as natural frames. Simple shapes, non-distracting items, etc. The more simple the item, the less it will detract from your subject (generally speaking). Use this approach to create symmetry.

All 3 shots I'm sharing in this entry were taken in July in my boys' room. Two contain a singular element, which is the Sesame Street painting, the other a portion of the top bunk and curtains. The boys' room doesn't contain many interesting visual elements and I've learned that more is not always better (i.e., just shooting wide and letting the chips fall where they may). When the angle is right, the painting can be a useful element in organizing my shots.

The shot below is a recent favorite of mine. I like the symmetric and boxy feel of this composition. I like my oldest son's eyes, which are barely visible over the safety bar. I like the way he and his brother's bodies lean in to one another, while their gazes are not singularly focused on the same area. This helps draw attention to their closeness while adding a tension to the image. I like the simplicity of it all. The window helps to close out the composition and keep the viewer from straying too far. It's very graphic.

My oldest enjoys using this camera body, which I've "given" to him (a manual minolta body I learned on). Anytime I pull my camera out, he runs to get his as well. He was taking a photo of me. I lined up the painting to his right (rather than directly behind him) and used the edge of the bunk beds to close out the frame. If I left it open, it would still work but would have a looser feel rather than the staunch symmetry afforded by straight, closed lines.

This shot uses that same painting as an element to close out the shot. Again, I like placing the boys to one side of the frame (but still without pushing them to the far edges) and balancing them with a symmetrical element (painting). When you're seeking out a composition, look for those elements which will fill out a shot without becoming busy or "cluttery".

It took me a long time to learn to see natural lines. It takes practice. It takes studying good photography to see how they did it. I hope this is useful, guys. Have a good one.


Monday, August 8, 2011

Using Mirrors

The shot above was my first realization that I could be in my own shots. True, many of us took at least one picture of our feet early in our photo journeys or perhaps a shot into the mirror but everyone does that. It's a virtual rite of passage. But in the shot above, I incorporated myself into the story of the moment in a less direct way than photographing my feet or myself in the bathroom mirror.

This post will look at creative ways to use mirrors and even how to incorporate ourselves into our images. I find both concepts interesting but as with any other technique, moderation is key. I use techniques such as this sparingly and for some reason (perhaps because I see way too much reliance on gimmicks these days), feel the need to say so.

This next shot is a variation in the same living room as the previous image. This is the same couch and the same mirror in the same living room that I sat on and slept on and jumped on since I was a tyke. It has meaning to me. I didn't want to shoot it the way I had before so I chose to frame vertically. I went for symmetry, so that the objects framing my youngest son would be less literal and more abstract shapes. I also was careful to include my wife in the reflection which provides another layer of content.

In this next shot, my cousin is reading to my two boys. Again, same couch, same mirror, etc. I think it's a good illustration of how varied you can make your compositions even with almost all of the same framing elements. I chose to include myself as part of the picture as well.

There is a component of fun in including yourself in shots. My wife decided to take a photo of me and I quickly composed this and fired back. There's a second shot which included my wife's camera flash burst but it seemed too contrived to me. Creative and simple can be adjectives which describe the same shot. It's okay to think simply if you have a handle on the elements of good composition, content and timing. Don't be fooled into the lure of "complex is better."

This shot is an example of finding a composition and camping on it. I pre-composed, pre-focused, and waited for my grandmother to step out of the guest room. Then, it was simply a matter of timing. Knowing angles helps as well.

I believe this shot might have appeared on an early post of mine. My apologies but it's one of my favorite mirror shots.

As always, I hope this is helpful and I hope it finds its way into your photo toolbox, like good spices...used sparingly.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Effectively Using Deliberate Motion Blur

Let's face it, we are at times limited by creating art within a two dimensional medium. Sometimes photos can feel a bit 'lifeless', especially when what we photographed was moving. I've already discussed the technique of panning, which is a tremendous way to add life to your photos (read that tutorial here:

But conditions do not always warrant a full pan. Sometimes we just want to show that things were moving when we captured the scene. Doing so is really rather simple. It just requires you to really focus on technique.

First, slow your shutter down to somewhere near 1/25th of a second. Your shutter speed will vary depending on how much movement you want to show. I personally like when the majority of the scene is sharp and just a small part of the photo has motion blur on it. Once you've selected your desired shutter speed, be sure to think about holding still when you press the shutter. Remember, this shutter speed is most likely slower than you normally shoot. So just be aware.

Below are some examples where I've utilized deliberate motion blur:

My son was playing the Wii and I really liked how his hands were moving. So I selected 1/30th for my shutter speed and waited for him to "hit the ball".

Same concept below. This was shortly after Santa brought he Wii.

Later that same night :)

After writing this post, I realize that I need to do this more!

Good luck! Keep documenting!


Monday, July 18, 2011

Isolating for Effect

Hey guys,

I want to talk about isolation in your images. This post addresses single subject isolation for effect.

Any good photo has a subject. (I know, painfully obvious statement.) Sometimes the subject is rather obvious, while it may be less obvious and/or more abstract in others. One of our jobs as photographers is to tell the viewer where to look. Good composition does this.

Now, you've surely seen photographers who shoot everything wide open (widest possible aperture on a given lens) because of the bokeh. Yes, bokeh is nice but it can very easily become a crutch. That's because shooting wide open all the time doesn't require a photographer to carefully consider the background. It's thrown so far out of focus that your eye cannot help but go right to the subject, which is often the only in-focus object. Easy. And sometimes just plain lazy. Whether you shoot wide open, stopped down a couple stops or at "f/8 and be there," you should know WHY you're doing it.

1. Choose your backgrounds carefully. To isolate a subject, the simpler the better.
Here is a shot of my son while on a trip to Texas. His great grandmother had given him a new skateboard and this is all he did for the few days we were there. I stayed back to let him play and used a 135mm lens. I shot from a side angle because I liked the shape of the houses behind him and because the background was uncluttered, he stood out well.

2. Separation.
I shot this is my son while in Texas. The sun was brilliant and warm. I was shooting close to wide open but I still carefully placed him clear of the sign posts and poles.

3. Get close.
Getting close to your subject can separate him/her from the background. Part of this lies in the fact that the closer you are, the faster depth of field drops off, even stopped down to f/4-f/5.6. One of the biggest benefits this has is proximity to the lens often catches the eye of the viewer more quickly. This shot below captures a quiet moment of a cousin with her puppy. She and the dog share a moment, completely separate of anyone playing around her. The image conveys that.

4. Choose your angle.
Below, you see a girl on a slide, alone in her thoughts. What you don't see is the house behind that slide, surrounding trees, other playground equipment or children playing. The low angle eliminated those distractions and set her apart from them all. The result is another quiet, contemplative image.

The shot below illustrates isolation at its rawest. Simplicity. White walls, a backwards glance, and nothing else. These moments are always both fortuitous and equally intentional. You can't expect them to fall into line regularly and you can't wait until the stars align. As a photographer, your job is to MAKE it happen.

Hope this is helpful.