Sep 16

What is Pre-Visualization?

Jewish Ghetto. Venice, Italy. 2015

Jewish Ghetto. Venice, Italy. 2015

What the heck is pre-visualization? This term was first popularized in the early 20th century by some of the great landscape photographers shooting their beloved large format view cameras.  Changing environmental conditions and the fleeting moment required these photographers to have an exacting knowledge of the behavior and magical alchemy of light, lens, film, filter, process and print. It was always about the print. While setting up and exposing a single sheet of film they knew exactly what the end result would be when they pressed the shutter release.

Many people are familiar with the story behind Ansel Adams’ famous “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico”. Adams saw the scene, saw the moon and loved the light. Getting out his gear he couldn’t find his light meter but knowing the brightness of the moon he set the exposure on his large format camera accordingly and exposed one of his most beloved photographs. He was a technically experienced photographer and through the process of pre-visualization he knew what he wanted and how to get it.

Some of the most admired and respected photographers in history came from disciplines other than photography. For example, Edward Steichen was trained as a painter, Paul Strand had first been a film maker and of course Henri Cartier-Bresson was a painter and sketch artist. Cartier-Bresson maintained that he never stopped drawing and that his ubiquitous Leica was an instant sketch pad. The point of all this is that these great photographers were visual thinkers, experts in non verbal communication and used the photographic medium to speak their particular language. Their artistic instincts, experience and training prepared them to look at the structure of a scene, the light and geometry and whether or not it was worthwhile pressing the shutter. It’s not an easy thing to do well.

If you find your photographs lacking, spend time looking at and learning from the masters, study the structure of their images, look at their interpretation of light, line, and rhythm.  Cross train, pick up a pencil and draw something you see, write, let your creative juices flow.

Next time you start to press the shutter, take a moment to pre-visualize and ask yourself these questions. Does everything inside the frame contribute to the strength of the image? Is there anything I can do differently to improve the light, or geometry of the image? Contemplate what you are trying to say and ask yourself if the image would speak for itself when printed and framed on your wall.

Apr 16

Best Focal Length for Travel?

How do you see? What angle of view represents your artistic “vision?” Recently I was having this discussion with some friends and I learned that we, as humans, have a visual field equal to about a 43mm full frame lens. This is why 35mm and 50mm lenses feel so comfortable. However, angle of view does not necessarily equal your artistic sensibilities or best lens option. Then of course, the question becomes,  “what is the one lens that represents you”? This got me thinking. Pulling up Lightroom, I performed an experiment.

In Lightroom 5, I clicked on my good file in the left hand column of the “Library” module and placed the images into grid view. A filter menu appeared on top of the grid and I selected “all dates”, “all cameras” and “all lenses.” I wasn’t too surprised by the results. Greater that half of my “keepers” were taken in the 16-35mm focal length. This is how I see. The next block was taken with the 70-200mm and the third largest block with the 50mm prime, then 24mm prime and finally 28mm prime.

Ok, this makes sense since these are the lenses I use most, however I wanted to know more, so selecting “16-35 lens” and switching to the “Develop” module, I was able to look at each individual photograph in this folder, and it’s specific focal length and metadata. I did this by going into the “View” menu and selecting “Loupe Info” and “Show Info Overlay.” This allowed me to have a much closer and detailed look at my images and to my surprise, the majority of the keepers were taken between 18mm and 28mm with very few at the 35mm length.

Up Close and Personal. Venice, Italy. 2015

Up Close and Personal. Venice, Italy. 2015

Even though the 28mm prime was far down on the list, metadata revealed I used the 16-35mm zoom most often at the 28mm focal length. Interesting. It’s a funny thing but I’m reminded of the Robert Capa quote “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” After this little metadata experiment and my realization on how I use focal length, I appreciate his sentiment more and more.

Light and Line. Venice, Italy. 2015

Light and Line. Venice, Italy. 2015

Now the moment of truth, how do I see? What is my best lens for everyday photography and travel? Given a little wiggle room I would answer the 16-35 f/4 VR so all my bases are covered but that isn’t a satisfying response. The one prime focal length I would choose above all others would be a 24mm f/1.4. Why? Being midway between 18-28mm, it’s wide enough to convey strong graphic elements while inviting me to get in close. A 24mm lens has less problems with proportion distortion than wider lenses allowing more intuitive composition, yet it lets me photograph what I see in a spontaneous way. Also, a 24mm is easy to hand hold in low light.

Next time you want to travel light and grab that one lens, what will you choose?

Mar 16

Photography Inspired by Traditional Art


33 Parrots Road to China

The 33 Fears, Kyrgyzstan China Border.

How does traditional art influence your image making?

Mist covered mountains on paper and silk paintings have filed my imagination since my late father brought one home from a trip to Beijing long ago. He loved Asia and China in particular. I think it’s because of his influence that I have also had a special place in my heart for Asia and always jump at a chance to travel there. Although it wasn’t obvious to me when I took it, this particular photograph was inspired by the mythical China we see in traditional art.

Feb 14

Past Meets Present in Uzbekistan

Travel to Uzbekistan and you will be hard pressed to experience a land and people with as deep a history so close to the surface. The people of Uzbekistan are friendly and beautiful. During our Silk Road trek, we crossed Uzbek desert and steppe overland because we wanted to see it all. From the viewpoint of a westerner, Central Asia is a lynchpin to understand the modern world. Uzbekistan was one to the five “stan’s” created by the Soviet government to divide and rule the Turkic population of Central Asia. The “stan’s” of Central Asia include Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Prior to the Soviet collapse in 1991 all five counties were part of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). Have a look at the Great Game to get a better understanding of the relationship of Uzbekistan and Central Asia to Europe prior to the modern era.

The ancient city of Shakhrisabz, formerly a stronghold of Amir Timur (Tamerlane) replaced it’s central statue of Lenin with one of Timur and the Soviet era hotel stood abandoned. Timur’s descendents gave rise to the Mughal Empire, who can be credited for building the magnificent Taj Mahal.

Silk Road Merchant. Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Silk Road Merchant. Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Timur and his palace. Shakhrisabz, Uzbekistan.

Timur and his palace. Shakhrisabz, Uzbekistan.

Cyrillic. Shakhrisabz, Uzbekistan.

Cyrillic. Shakhrisabz, Uzbekistan.

Sacred Tile. Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Sacred Tile. Samarkand, Uzbekistan


Feb 12

Cursive and Cultural Continuity

As a fan and advocate of all things related to travel and history, it was wonderful to recently be able to sort through a collection of antique postcards in San Francisco. Many were of photographs from the time immediately surrounding the 1906 earthquake and fire. However it was the writing on the backs of the cards that I found most interesting. This included descriptions of the date and location of the photograph and a mixture of carefully scripted and hastily scrawled greetings to friends and loved ones. Each was a precious time capsule and part of the fabric that makes up our cultural legacy.

Looking at these postcards I thought about the debate over the teaching of reading and writing cursive script in our schools. Based on what I’ve read, the ability to read cursive is being lost. Without the ability to read cursive these postcards would be trash. It’s important for our personal and family histories to be able to read what has been written, and not just letters and journals penned by our great grandparents, but also the beautiful scripts written by our cultural ancestors. When I visited the National Archives in Washington DC, I was able to look at the Declaration of Independence and Constitution mere inches away. The aging parchment and pen strokes told me far more about the time and place they were written than a digital text copy ever could.

I think this familial and cultural continuity is something that is being lost in the debate. So, whatever else you do today, postcard, letter or journal, pick up a pen and write.

Curious Lizard

Aug 11

Pen versus Keyboard

The debate rages on, which is mightier, the pen or the keyboard? A flurry of recent articles has been lamenting the demise of handwriting and the inability of the internet generation to read and write cursive script. The arguments don’t simply center on which is the more efficient tool, rather the lines are being drawn over which method of placing ink to page or pixels to screen furthers the creative process, facilitates learning, offers long term benefit to brain development and acts to attenuate the threat of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

As narratives go, this one is straightforward. The pen or stylus has a long and storied history dating back to the cuneiform of the Sumerians and the Epic of Gilgamesh, Linear scripts of the early Greeks, Hebrew, Aramaic, Trajan’s Column and so forth through the italic, Spencerian and Palmer revolutions. Asian cultures have elevated the art of calligraphy to a spiritual practice that ultilizes the Four Treaures of Study consisting of the inkstick, inkstone, brush and paper.

The keyboard on the other hand is criticized as a mechanical process that splits the mental focus into two hands and attention between the keyboard and screen, and as a result the creative process is corrupted. According to this school of thought, the process of manually crafting a letter with the focal point of a single stylus upon the page is a more creative and intellectual process than learning to actuate a letter represented by a key upon a keyboard and that the look of one’s handwriting is a window into one’s character.

A recent article suggests that handwriting differs from keyboarding because is activates Broca’s speech area and two other locations of the brain on functional MRI. In China, brush calligraphy is being used as a treatment for attention deficit and moods disorders and a large study performed in Hong Kong has found that elderly persons who engaged in regular cognitive activities including both writing and keyboarding suffered significantly less age related dementia and cognitive decline. One of the outcomes of this research is that we now understand that we process the language of words and letters differently than we process symbolic logographic language. An early form of Chinese language called Kanji uses symbols to convey ideas rather than individual letters. The more modern system of writing that uses individual letters is called Kana. This is significant because it was found that individuals who suffered damage to their language center by a stroke were able to continue to communicate with Kanji but not Kana.

Proponents of handwriting argue that the focus necessary to form letters and words in the mind and produce them in a beautiful display on paper is a satisfying healthy practice. I agree. Handwriting is a wonderful satisfying way to communicate. One of my great joys is using fountain pens to take notes, prepare articles and narratives and to maintain my notebooks and journals.

Information from the scientific and health care communities doesn’t let us pick a winner between pens and keyboards. Both are effective methods of communication, both seem to help stave off the ravages of cognitive decline and both have produced brilliant works of art. As in all things, for there to be a benefit, you have to put in the time and the effort necessary for it make a difference.