DANO Pendygrasse

odds and ends from an unusual life

All about pacing.

Warning: Lots of words about inspiration and creativity. Photo “gear geeks” may want to skip over to DP Review or something.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about process. Most of the photographer blogs I see are about really basic photo concepts or gear, and neither one of them are particularly interesting to me. It’s true that 98% of the photo questions I get relate to the basics, and gear, but I’ve answered most of those questions so many times that I barely even think before reciting the standard answers.

The thing that has been interesting to me lately is pacing.
Pacing is rarely discussed by photographers but is one of the most important aspects to what we do. When I speak about pacing, I’m talking about the speed at which I take photos. It may be the least discussed things in photography because it isn’t gear, subject matter, lighting or any of the things we see as the prime considerations of image making. But it relates to everything.

When we first pick up a camera we tend to snap away at everything that is interesting. Occasionally something ends up looking good but mostly we’re left with throwaway photos because we haven’t put enough thought into our subject matter, composition or technique. Soon we learn about exposure, composition and maybe some aspects of style and our pace slows down. We consider our subject more. We think through our exposures. We might even try to capture some preconceived idea.

As our technique gets polished and exposure becomes second nature, we may be able to translate our vision into the frame more quickly, so at this point we’re more likely to spend more time with subjects, making more exposures, trying out all our little tricks on the same subject to see how many different looks we can get, what works and what doesn’t.

Up until now, the pace of our work has evolved organically. We shoot at the speed that is necessary. If something is happening quickly, we speed up. If we have time, we take as much as we need. This makes sense and works well. But I wanted to try something new.

Here is where I decided to insert something new into my process. I wanted to see how imposing a specific pace and sticking with it would affect my photography. In my work I try to convey an impression of whatever it is that I’m shooting that is honest, portrays the subject accurately, but brings something of myself to the scene and hopefully shows the viewer something they’ve never seen before, even if the subject is very familiar to them.

This blog is mostly about chasing my wife and dog around.

Sweden was the perfect place to start. I had a lot of time in the same place, without many obligations, and it was a good mix of familiar and foreign. I started slow, which is close to my normal speed. Early one morning I went out to the docks, set a boundary of where I wanted to shoot, and set out to take some pictures. To ensure that I slowed down, I deliberately saved the coffee until after I was done…

So I looked at things for longer than I otherwise might have. I shot things that initially seemed boring. After staring at them for long enough though, I started to see more to them. Shapes revealed themselves. I got closer - patterns emerged. I stuck to the slow pace. I shot. Then I went for breakfast.

The photos were ok. Some were good. I think that there were more throwaway shots in the mix than usual though. And maybe more cliché looking shots.
I suspect that given the time to think, maybe I think too much.

So next I was going for a walk with my wife and her stepbrother. They weren’t taking photos. We didn’t have an agenda though, and they were patient with me. Still, I decided to keep the pace quick. Find a shot, make one or maybe two frames at the most and keep moving. Shoot quickly and don’t make them wait. If I couldn’t get the shot in two frames, so be it.

Late summer bathers. Kladeshölmen, Sweden.

Quickly I fell into a rhythm. I’d walk, scan, stop, shoot, and then hustle to catch up. Walk, scan, shoot, repeat. I spent less time looking at my LCD. I trusted my exposures. I went with my first impression of framing and composition, spent around 10 seconds total on every shot, and I kept up.

When I first went through the photos a couple interesting things happened. First, I threw out less than I expected to. There was more quality right off the bat, and there were less “practice frames”. Second, I saw a real “look” that sometimes my work can lack. There were repeated themes. There was cohesiveness. At the risk at sounding pretentious, there was honesty. Third, the shots grew on me as time went on. More and more frames started to feel like real winners, like very definite representations of the place and time. I felt like I was on to something.

This photo has nothing to do with the text. Or does it?!

I continued the experiment when I got home, again, on a walk with the wife and dog, this time speeding the pace even more. I walked quickly, scanned, shot and tried not to get left behind. In a few moments I realized that this end of the spectrum wasn’t working for me. Walking at a fast pace made me lose contact with the things I want to shoot and I lost the insight into the subject matter.

So what am I taking away from all this? Well I guess it’s simple. Whatever it takes to get my mind out of the mix when shooting is probably a good thing if I want to shoot honest photos. The lessons I learned from that one photowalk in Sweden have stuck with me and the results have triggered a focus and direction that I can easily access either through replicating the pace, or reviewing the original shots to find that “feeling” again.

This is big picture stuff. It’s much easier to write about gear or the rule of thirds, but vision and creativity can be far more intangible and valuable. As I was finishing up this little piece, I was reading my regular blog roundup and
Rachel Hulin had a transcription of an interview with Edward Burtynsky whose work I admire. Interestingly he touched on some of the things I’ve been talking about, but I like his next step which is to return to the site and continue to shoot and experiment. If you’re working editorially on a limited timeframe there isn’t always time to go back and photograph scenes like he does, but it makes a ton of sense and I’m interested to revisit some of my shots with film and try out different formats at different times.

If you have something to add to the conversation, please do so in the comments.


Frame one of two, taken in 12 seconds while walking quickly...

The things I don't know.

I might as well admit right here and now that I don't know squat about photographers. I mean, other photographers. Well, that's not entirely true, I've learned a lot in the last couple years, but for the longest time I didn't know any important photographers beyond Ansel Adams. And that was just fine with me. I lived in a bubble and I liked it. When my shooting started evolving from pure "action sports" into something a little more advanced, I wanted keep the process as untainted as possible. I was really afraid of being overwhelmed by an influence and becoming derivative as a result.

In the last few years I have seen young action sports photographers take unique ideas and recreate them, and pass them off as their own. I think it's totally reprehensible, but the shots are getting published, so I guess I have a higher standard for originality. There is a lack of shame about it to, as if the copyist is entitled to the concept simply because they've seen it with their own eyes. The entitled generation has an entirely different value set and it's interesting to see how they interact with the establishment. I'm sure that at some point I'll see the bigger picture, but right now I just see selfish kids who only know how to take.

One day about a year and half ago, I was showing my friend Tim Zimmerman a bunch of my older non-action sports shots as I scanned them and put them online. He said something like "whoa, Jay Maisel influence eh?" I said: "Who?"

This is exactly what I was trying to avoid, and it didn't work at all. Without ever having seen the man's work I was being compared to him, and I was pissed off. Well in a very short time I completely changed my tune. I stopped being afraid of influences and started to embrace them. Of course, I'm not interested in recreating anyone's photo, but I've gained a lot by looking at peoples' process. In fact that is what led me to finally take a workshop last spring after avoiding them for 15 years. And of course, I learned a ton. Maybe not just from Heisler, but also from some of the other people involved. Just watching other people work changes how we work. We see solutions to problems we've been having. We learn little tricks. Questions that we have are answered and inevitably we have that moment of "Ah Haaaaaa!"

During the Heisler workshop I met Jay in the flesh, his unmistakable marble mouthed commentary sharing the little bits and pieces that make up who he is. It was a brief encounter and he wouldn't be able to pick me out of a lineup, but it completed the transition out of my bubble.

Yesterday Jay shared a little bit more at Scott Kelby's excellent blog and it's worth a few minutes. In the end, I don't want to take Jay Maisel's pictures, I just want to make pictures like Jay Maisel does. The way he works suits my style perfectly. However, I fear that he is last of a breed and we're less likely to see his kind of work much from my generation. (Although I'm sure a few of the entitled kids are walking around his neighbourhood looking for his shots and trying to identically recreate them to call them their own.) I understand that there probably isn't much chance that this body of my work will ever have a showing at the VAG, but that's not the point. I am compelled to shoot like this and have to keep doing it.

Here are a couple links to things about the show this weekend. See you there:

The Pique