Friday, March 22, 2013

Un-Still Photography and Refocusing the Photographer

My husband is a painter, and recently his mentor gave the following assignment to their group:  If I asked you to break one rule you have for yourself regarding watercolor painting, what would it be? It might be a rule from traditional approaches and techniques or one you've set for yourself...
I thought this was a brilliant assignment! Too many times rules (technical, aesthetic, etc.) keep us from discovery.

But it's not that simple. Like driving, I learned social customs late.  Stick close to the rules and no one will realize you've lived way (way) outside them for much of your life. And conformity has its uses and even benefits. At a four-way stop, we agree that the first person there gets to proceed first (though we are foolish if we don't check to make sure we're all on the same page about that). In my old world, there were no four-way stops, no roads of any kind. Every step was like a pebble tossed in a lake, rippling the surface in all directions, in no direction.  So I learned to like roads, stopsigns, and rules. However, rules can become walls just as the lack of them can become chaos. And I became a person on a ledge, hugging the walls for safety from the abyss. But between the wall and the abyss is something else. A universe.

I love Dale Chihuly. I love his work, but, even more, I love his freedom. Watch any video, watch every video of him and you'll see it. If anyone makes art look like fun and fun look like life beyond (not without) rules, it's him.  From his baskets to his gardens, from his ceilings to his forests, there is a kind of confident abandon, there is pure joy.

We'd waited for a sunny day to drive down to Seattle to see "Chihuly Garden and Glass" at the Seattle Center.  Photography was allowed but tripods were not.
I had no desire to use one anyway. Why would I take pictures of these beautiful pieces when excellent reproductions are available in just about every format? Granted, I have taken pictures of plants purely for botanical reproductions. They need to be accurate. They need to show the plants in all their forms. Leaves must show up clearly and buds and fruit as well as flowers need to be recorded. But I don't do much of this anymore. 

"Glass Forest" as still as I could hold it
So there I was, enjoying the exhibits. I had my camera, but not enough light for well-focused, hand-held shooting. So I started moving the camera in ways that reflected what I was getting from the pieces:  sweeping it, jiggling, even jumping it.  Keeping the camera absolutely still is a cardinal rule, particularly for botanical photography. Tripods, mirror lock-up, and cable releases are de rigueur.
So moving the camera around while pressing the shutter felt pretty freeing!  I did get some odd looks. Did I KNOW I wasn't holding still? Did I REALISE moving around was a bad thing with a "still camera"? Yup.  Not having to brace myself, hold my breath and gently squeeze the shutter was enough to make a person giddy. And giddy is exactly what a lot of Chihuly's work makes me feel.

Breaking the rules. I've got a "still" camera. Which means I shoot stills as opposed to moving pictures. But does that necessarily mean I have to be still?  Light "rules" in photography. You change your settings (if you can't change the lighting), or you can change your expectations. 

I found that shots that were just a little out of focus hurt my eyes. I guess the eye muscles were trying hard to get the image into focus or at least to hold still. But once an image was clearly (pun certainly intended) taken while moving, then my eyes accepted the result and relaxed.  And once they relaxed, they could register the view from the merry-go-round that had, a moment before, been a slightly soft-focused chandelier. 

Inside the "Glasshouse," light improved and so did my shutter speed.  The umbrella-like forms seem to follow the people as they walk through on their way to the gardens.  Gorgeous and expected.

 But then I changed my angle and looked up.  And the umbrellas had changed to an abstraction of swirling butterflies, garlanding the Space Needle.  I tried in Lightroom to get the lines "right" and correct the distortions.  Then realized the image was my experience.  The photograph expressed the ride I was on between the wall and space.



  1. Emily...a new discovery for you, and a absolute visual treat for us. It's amazing how breaking a simple rule can give you such stunning photos.


    1. Jen, Thank you SO much. It's really freeing, but so difficult to fight back against the rules one worked so hard to learn.

  2. Interesting and thought provoking. It's always seemed bizarre to me when people are afraid to climb outside of their own self-drawn lines to experiment with anything different. I like the feeling of joy and confidence in his work. :o)

    1. I agree. He really does inspire me to let go of my own restrictions.