Ever since switching out my system from the Canon DSLR to the Leica Rangefinder, with all its related pluses (portability and access to gorgeous lenses) and minuses (fussy focusing and high cost), I realised that if I wanted to truly hop on the “serious photography” train and ride it to the next station down the line, then I needed to sit at the feet of a master and humbly let go of any preconceived notions of what I think I’m doing right or wrong.
Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as just walking up to a professional photographer’s door and asking to tag along on his/her next couple of assignments — but the global internet does make it a lot simpler to track down talented photographers whose work I admire, and sometimes they offer seminars, or DVD training sessions, or sell books, or all of the above.
One of the photographers whose work, opinions and philosophy I’ve come to greatly respect is Ming Thein, a working pro who somehow manages to walk that fine line between commercial/product photography and visual art — and he tests new cameras, posts reviews of equipment, and writes about technical and creative issues in clear and concise terms that most anyone can understand.
Plus he’s a damn fine photographer.
So I explored his site and discovered that he offers training seminars in various cities throughout the US, Europe and Asia. Well, that’s fine and good, but it’s still a long haul to any of those destinations from New Zealand and I’d be piling the cost of air travel and a hotel onto the back of the cost of the four day seminar itself, which made me balk a bit when I began tallying up the bottom line for attending his upcoming workshop in Prague (but on the other hand — it’s in gorgeous PRAGUE!).
And then I noticed that he also offers an “Email School of Photography” — where for a much lower price than jetting off to Prague, I can still interact with a photography master and get a guided tour through the ins and outs of producing quality images.
Upside: no air travel and hotel expenses. Downside: It’s not four days in gorgeous Prague.
But seriously, how often will I get the opportunity to take lessons — even via email — from a professional whose work I personally respect and admire, in a format that’s tailored specifically to my level of skill (low), that operates at my own speed (slow), and where I don’t have to elbow all the other paying seminar members out of the way in order to get the instructor’s attention?
So I signed right up.
The first thing Mr. Thein had me do was submit what I considered my ten best photographs for him to analyse and critique for my ability (or inability, as the case may be) to photograph with any amount of creative or technical proficiency. He offered a bracingly honest assessment of what was right and wrong with the pics, and then I was sent off on my first assignment: To be aware of everything at the edges of my frame, and to shoot with the awareness of using the entire frame.
In other words, I’m not allowed to digitally crop the picture to cut out mistakes at the edges (errant tree limbs, an ugly car, a pedestrian that strays into the shot, too much dead space around my subject, etc.). I can crop for aspect differences — such as changing the format ratio to a square (1×1), or a cinematic horizontal style (16×9), but other than that, what I snapped is supposed to stay in the picture.
#1) This is a lot harder than it sounds, and #2) shooting with the intention of using everything in the frame has made me very conscious of just how the lens I’m using affects the output.
When I was randomly shooting and cropping, I wasn’t gaining any working familiarity with the specific nature of the focal length I’d chosen for that day; instead, I was aiming, shooting and then cropping out all the bits that “didn’t work” instead of familiarising myself with how the lens I was using specifically interpreted the world around me, and then playing to those particular strengths.
So after several days of wandering Auckland (mostly in the rain, I might add, which isn’t all that great for producing interesting natural-light conditions) with my 28mm lens, I finally began to understand the difference between wide-angle (35mm and below, generally) and telephoto (50mm and above, generally) photography — how a wide-angle emphasises the foreground subject while employing the background as context, and how a telephoto compresses distance in order to de-emphasise background context and isolate the subject that way.
Or, at least, that’s the understanding I’ve reached so far. I’ll likely gain more insight the longer I work at utilising the full capacity of the respective lens types. But for me, this realisation is like the heavens opening and a beam of light shining down on me from above. Now, instead of battling my lenses to give me what I want, I choose the subject according to the lens I’m carrying at the time.
I know, that should have been obvious to me all along, but this is why I signed up for a tutorial with Ming Thein. I certainly needed this kind of hands-on education, and following specific lesson plans gives me the necessary prompting to think more carefully about what I’m shooting and how.
I’m still working on Lesson One, and have a lot of practicing to do before it becomes second nature to aim with awareness. But just this small “Aha!” moment has radically altered the way I go about approaching my camera, which is as good a recommendation as I can give for finding yourself a creative mentor and rubbing shoulders — in my case, I’m rubbing email shoulders, but it seems to work just as well.
Even though it’s not four days in gorgeous Prague.
*NOTE: That old saying about “If you want to improve at something, surround yourself with people better than you and learn from them” is true!
*NOTE 2: Thein encouraged me to start shooting vertically, which (weirdly enough) I never do. Probably because it feels awkward and clumsy, so I don’t. But there are subjects that demand a vertical shoot, and I wasn’t doing myself (or the subject) any favours by insisting on shooting everything horizontally. My first vertical shot is the Auckland Wintergarden statue included above.
*NOTE 3: For an illustration as to how a telephoto lens compresses distance to isolate the subject, click the following link for a picture of the Wintergarden statue at 75mm instead of the wide-angle 28mm shown above: Auckland Wintergarden Statuary at 75mm