iPhone · tography: All Souls Procession

Each year in early November the Tucson community gathers to memorialize loved ones who have passed away in an event called the All Souls Procession. This is a cross-cultural event.  It blends the Mexican Dia de los Meutos (Day of the Dead) holiday with a larger artistic expression that encompasses both the sadness and the fond remembrance that accompanies the death of a friend or family member.  It culminates on Sunday evening with a march by participants to a symbolic pyre where written thoughts, prayers, and memories are burned in a shared celebration of how the lives of others have enriched our own.

This couple is somewhat typical of the skull-like face painting present on many participants at the All Souls Procession. If you squint your eyes you can really see it. For this image, I asked this pair to move to a shady spot since the softer light would allow the details of their face painting to show up better.

I am photographically drawn to this event by the sugar skull (calavera) iconography that is common to the Dia de los Muertos tradition.  In particular, it’s the face painting that imitates the decorative sugar skulls that makes photography at this festival special. Many participants create elaborate skull-like face paintings that are then enhanced with additional articles of clothing, headdresses, and various peripherals that set the mood for their personal involvement in the procession.  For a couple of hours before the parade starts, people are gathering on the street.  It’s a nice time to mingle with the growing crowd and look for pictures.

I think this lady perfectly captures the spirit of the day. Her face is painted like a decorative sugar skull, she’s wearing a flowery headdress, she has a skull tattoo on her shoulder, and she’s carrying the picture of the person she has come to remember.

While I’ve taken my camera to this event in previous years, I decided just to use the iPhone this year.  Even though it’s just an old first-gen iPhone SE, I like the screen for composing images.  I also like the light weight (4 ounces) for maneuverability and freedom, and the ability to shoot raw images for developing the resulting mages in Camera Raw and Photoshop. Linear profiles and luminosity masks work fine with DNG images from the iPhone.  I was a little concerned that the fixed 29-mm equivalent lens would be too short for people close-ups, but this turned out to not be an issue.

These painted ladies embrace the artistic side of this event. The sugar skull iconography has been taken to another level by the makeup artist, who, I think, is the woman on the right. Many painted faces contain color elements, but I often prefer a black and white presentation as it better emphasizes the monochrome, haunting nature of a skull. However, colors like this are more festive than haunting and deserve to be brought through to the final image.

I’m not much of a people photographer, but it seemed like people at this event were extremely open to being photographed. I guess we’re all used to having our pictures taken with smartphones nowadays, though usually not by strangers.  Since they were mostly unrecognizable in their face paint, the subjects were able to maintain a high degree of anonymity when an unfamiliar person asked to photograph them.  Even more, though, I think many people who had decorated themselves for the event wanted to be photographed.  It was a moment to be a celebrity, a chance to be noticed in a way that highlighted their own artistic expression.

This woman is carrying what I think is referred to as an offrenda, which is normally an altar containing pictures and items meant to commemorate the person who has died and to welcome their spirit into the home. This one was portable, and it created a useful frame for the subject’s face.

The nice thing about iPhone·tography is that the camera and camera app (I was mostly using the Lightroom Mobile camera app) does all the work.  It’s simple point-and-shoot photography. The camera found the faces, focused on them and set the exposure while I held the camera at arm’s length and attempted to engage the subject in conversation or direct their placement in the frame.  I did use the camera’s flash and it seemed to help add a little extra light to the faces while also creating a small catch light in the subject’s eyes.   I told the subjects I needed to move in close, and no one seemed to mind.  I was an arm’s length behind the camera, so it’s less of an intrusion into their personal space.  It also felt better from my perspective.  I liked having the extra distance while still being able to get some nice close ups of these faces. 

Backgrounds can problematic in these street portraits, and it’s a reason to fill the frame as much as possible with the subject’s face. Obtrusive backgrounds are also a reason for switching to black and white. Then it becomes a matter of just darkening distracting background elements tonally instead of having to manage their colors as well. This image is a good one for seeing the catch light from the camera’s flash in the subject’s eyes.

Another benefit of iPhone images is the ability to easily share the results with the subjects.  The larger phone screen is definitely better than almost any camera LED display for doing this.  While I think it’s courteous to show the images to the subject, I was a little surprised at how many then requested a copy.  Being able to instantly share the results with the subject creates an interesting new dimension.  It’s something that maybe only happens when photographing people with a smartphone. 

This is another example of where I felt the colors in the face painting deserved to be brought through to the finished image. The person was position with a slightly less chaotic background where the colors would still be manageable and didn’t compete with the face painting. The flash helped preserve light on the face which made processing easier. This image uses the sketch actions in the TK8 plugin to produce the final results.

While there were plenty of regular cameras at this event with long lenses, flash, and reflectors, I have no regrets about only taking and using my single-lens iPhone. It was easy to engage with the subjects while taking pictures and the images turned out better than expected. It was also an interesting challenge to compose with a shorter focal length lens, but in the end I think it might have created a better connection with the subject both photographically and personally. Not surprisingly, a street festival like this can be a great place for photography, and the iPhone can be a fun way to explore the possibilities.

Trust

From taking pictures, to developing them, to finding my place in the photographic community, I’ve never worked alone.  Everything, I have found, is a relationship.  I sort of know what I’d like to do, but the advice and consent of my “partners” needs to be considered.  These relationships are fundamental in guiding me along an unending path.  My route is perpetually uncertain, but I’ve learned that if I communicate effectively with my partners, I’ll visit some wonderful places and experience things that truly make me happy.  Generally that communication involves a lot of listening and then trusting that I’m being given sound advice. 

However, I should be clear that things like luck, chance, coincidence, and destiny are NOT what I’m referring to here.  Those words and several others like them are used to describe auspicious happenstance.  However, they fall short because they are external and one-sided.  Luck and coincidence, for example, are things that happen to you from the outside.  They are not words that describe an ongoing relationship.  Partners work together for a beneficial outcome.  Yes, sometimes it seems like good luck at first, but once you realize that you’ve been listening and participating in a relationship all along, you’ll see that it was the partnership that actually created the end result.  In other words, you were always part of it.  It was an inside job.

The partnership actually created the end result.  In other words, you were always part of it.  It was an inside job.

These “partners,” as you might have guessed, aren’t exactly real.  At least not in the sense that I can see, touch, and talk to them directly.  Neither are they spirits, ghosts, or even gods.  Yet, they somehow know more about me than I consciously know myself and seem to lead me in the right direction.  These partners solve problems in the middle of the night such that solutions are obvious when I wake up the next morning.  They find good friends for me who eventually lead me on new adventures.  They help me take pictures in places where I didn’t think good light existed.   More than anything, though, they are a continual source of inspiration.  Listening to these partners means I always have something to do and that I’m looking forward to doing it.  It’s a fortunate circumstance.

Every relationship requires a degree of trust, and, generally, the greater the trust, the stronger and more productive the relationship will be.  This is true with your photographic “partners” just like it is with your spouse or best friend.   But “who,” exactly, are your photographic partners?  And what does it mean to trust them?  Let’s take a look at three important examples.

Trust yourself

YOU are likely already the best tool you have for making better pictures.

Many photographers become photographers simply by virtue of owning a camera.  There’s not a lot of formal education, and in our search for better pictures we buy new gear, plan a trip, watch YouTube videos, and install new software.  However, once you know the basics of photography, YOU are likely already the best tool you have for making better pictures.  Your photography might indeed involve travel, different equipment, or additional instruction; however, these things should not be a substitute for the practice, experimentation, and personal dedication that will actually improve your skills and make a difference.  It’s your commitment to learning and the belief you can indeed acquire new skills that creates the desired results.   

Trusting your inherent human ability to change, adapt, and grow at any point in your life is the real key to improving your photographic IQ.  The trust relationship with yourself—the partnership, if you will—means you’ll seek, find, and understand photographic subjects and techniques that interest you.  You’ll acquire the equipment that suits your shooting style and be able to use it effectively in a variety of settings.  You’ll discover what interests you most about photography and find the right resources to improve your skills and share your creativity.  Trusting yourself, if you work at it, leads to new knowledge that is both practical and meaningful.  As you learn more about photography, you’ll also be learning more about yourself and what you are capable of doing.

Trust the light

By treating light as your partner and not your prey—as your collaborator instead of something to be captured—you are able to create images with more personal meaning that have a stronger sense of connection. 

Light.  There is no photography without it.  Understanding and learning to control light seems essential to becoming a good photographer.  And, indeed, familiarity with f-stop, exposure, ISO, and focal length are basic skills that most photographers acquire.  However, this aptitude only controls how the camera reacts to light; it doesn’t control the light reaching the camera.  Fortunately, we now have tools and technology that can help us predict and control light: a plethora of artificial lighting, apps that predict the movement and location of sun, moon, and stars as well as weather apps that predict what natural lighting to expect. However, even with all these modern conveniences, light remains forever wild.  What we expect and what we actually get may still be considerably different.

Approaching light with an open mind makes you ready to respond to whatever the light might have in mind.  Over time, being responsive to the light—listening to it—helps alleviate the frustration and repeat visits that come with trying to take a specific, pre-imagined picture.  Once you learn to trust the light, you’ll understand that it will always be there for you.  Maybe not in exactly the way you envisioned in, but rather in the way the light wants you to see it.  And this is where trust really pays off.  By treating light as your partner and not your prey—as your collaborator instead of something to be captured—you are able to create images with more personal meaning that have a stronger sense of connection.  You’ll never forget the places where the light gave you something unexpectedly beautiful, and there will be many of these unforgettable, special moments once you learn to trust the light.

Trust the world

Does the world really need more photographers and photographs? Well, yes, it does. In fact, that’s exactly what it needs.

There are millions of photographers, billions of photographs, and the number of each is increasing rapidly.  Does the world really need more of either of them?  Well, yes, it does.  In fact, that’s exactly what it needs.  That’s because the capacity of the world to absorb creative individuals passionate about what they do is infinite.  The world only gets better for all of us when people discover what really excites them and then strive to make it part of their everyday life.  Passionate people are the ones who give us something new and unique.  They teach us how to see things differently and show us what’s possible.  If you’re passionate about photography, the world will find a place for that enthusiasm to be expressed in a way that makes the world a better place. 

However, you still need to be alert for what the world is telling you; you need to listen to your partner.  The world will help you find the people you need to spread your ideas, and it will provide you opportunities that are available to no one else.  But you need to be open to the changes and compromises this relationship might entail.  Perhaps your goal is to sell your images in art galleries.  However, the world is currently looking for someone to lead photo treks to exactly the places where you’ve been taking pictures and offers you that job instead.  Or maybe you want to take glamour images of pretty models, but the world also sees your ability to teach and asks you to teach portrait photography.  Or maybe you just take pictures as a hobby, but your online gallery attracts lots of views and before long you’ve created a new community that wants to learn from you.  The point here is that in a world already crowded with photographers and overflowing with photographs, we don’t always get our first choice of assignments.  But that’s OK. Landing where the world wants you to be as a photographer, instead of where you thought you’d be, eventually feels like winning the lottery.  You’re happy with what you do, you’ve positively influenced the lives of others, and you eventually come to realize that you got lucky.  This was your destiny all along. 

Except, of course, that luck and destiny really weren’t involved.  It was you pursuing your passion, learning to trust the world, and then simply following the path that this partnership created.

Summary

Creating pictures that come from your desire to express yourself as an individual simultaneously creates partners that want to see you succeed.

Learning to trust is not always easy.  It requires some effort and perhaps some actual labor.  Fortunately, photographers have already developed their awareness and observational skills, and so, they are prepared more than others to recognize those moments when their partners show up and the relationship begins to grow.

Every worthwhile relationship has trust as its foundation, and a strong foundation is the basis on which new ideas and concepts can grow and spread out into the world.  Your photographic relationships, when they have trust at their core, will guide you in many different ways.  Creating pictures that come from your desire to express yourself as an individual simultaneously creates partners that want to see you succeed.   You just need to trust them.  They’ll keep you headed in the right direction on a path that never has to end. Enjoy the journey!

Your turn

I would enjoy hearing who your partners are in photography, and how have you learned to trust them? If you have any thoughts on these topics, please leave a comment or simply respond to the email containing this article.

A big thanks to Bob Hills and Jim Hill for providing feedback and editing for this article.

TK8 released today, but download server swamped

The TK8 plugin and TK8 Video Guide were released today. Sean Bagshaw and I sent previous customers emails with update information and discount codes.  Unfortunately the shopping cart and download server appear to have been quickly overwhelmed.  I apologize for the inconvenience.  Hopefully things will be back to normal soon.  If the “ADD TO CART” buttons are not working on my and Sean Bagshaw’s website, please try again later. In fact, waiting until later is probably the best strategy to allow the shopping cart to recover.  I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience.

Thorn-scapes and Five Lessons

“A ball of daggers” would be a fair description of many agaves, but the natural arrangements are so artful that it’s easy to look past the potential pain and simply admire the abstract design

Job, career, profession.

Hobby, pastime, passion.

Art, science, magic.

Photography can be different things to different people, and its role in a person’s life can certainly change over time.   As I was working on a recent series of images, I asked myself, “What is it to me now?”  The answer wasn’t immediately clear.  I wasn’t planning to sell these images.  The subject matter (thorns) wasn’t wildly popular on 500px. And the main reason I chose it was simply the fact that plants with spikes are plentiful in my environment.  But once I got started, I wanted to keep going.  After a few images it felt like an adventure.  The fun had started.  Now I just needed to figure out what I was supposed to learn from it?

If you can imagine a saguaro cactus as a long neck, then the spines that cover it can be thought of as neck-lace. Intricate patterns woven together to create a delicate, almost jewel-like covering. Although, in the case of saguaros, this dainty lace is actually a formidable defense. Pretty to look at, especially close up, but completely unforgiving of even an accidental touch.

One thing I quickly realized is how this choice of subjects completely separated me from the madness that sometimes engulfs nature photography.  There was no line of photographers three-deep trying to get the same picture of Mesa Arch.  No crowded bridge in Zion National Park.  No dozens of vehicles at White Pocket.  It was just me and usually a single Sonoran Desert succulent.  I could relax and search for pictures with no timeline or deadline.  Exploration isn’t always about traveling significant distances or spending lots of time reaching a destination.  This was still nature photography, but in an easy-to-reach, distraction-free solitude that invited searching for possibilities and finding something new.  Lesson one:  Stop chasing the light and focus on where it might be hiding instead.

A macro lens reveals that each individual saguaro areola is covered with nearly two dozen sharp thorns. The blur inherent with these close-up shots softens the overall appearance to some degree, but don’t get fooled. These spines are sharp and painful even if their abstract presentation seems somewhat benign.

I also soon came to understand that I had failed to fully see the plants I had walked past every day since moving to Tucson.  Their abundance suggested they might be ordinary, I suppose, and who wants to photograph “ordinary,” right?  I had a photographic bias against plants, I think. But that’s changing.  There’s nothing commonplace about common plants anymore, especially here in the deserts of southern Arizona.  There’s beauty in resilience and elegance in adaptation.  The structures that help these plants survive also impart a unique character.  Finding this character with a camera is the challenge.  Discarding previous attitudes helps.   Lesson two:  Don’t ignore ordinary.

The elegance of agaves is undeniable. Symmetry, repetition, and gentle curves. But they’re also pointed, tough, and determined. A true desert survivor that adds grace and style to the landscape.

Possibly one of the more surprising aspects when looking over the images from this thorn-ography project was that, stylistically, they are quite similar to many of my previous sandstone images.  When I lived on the Colorado Plateau, I found it easy to go out to photograph slot canyons, hoodoos, and arches.  These were extraordinary formations and seductively captivating photographic subjects.  However, many times my favorite pictures were just a tiny slice of the larger landscape.  Details and textures probably constitute a majority of my images from that sandstone era.  These thorn-scapes are all about pattern and texture also.  I do love these natural rhythms, and this series of images made me realize that this is maybe my way of visualizing subjects to photograph.  Once I see a pattern, I can start to see a picture.  Lesson three:  It’s easier finding light once you’ve found your style.

Golden Barrel cacti are commonly used in desert landscaping since they’re well-adapted to the dry conditions and don’t require irrigation. Their golden spines provide a colorful focal point. However, this image focuses on the repetitive, abstract nature these spines and not their color. I like the sense that this cactus is able to weave a fabric of thorns across it’s surface.

Processing images is something I enjoy.  I know photographers are supposed to want to be out taking pictures, but crafting an image in Photoshop is also a unique experience for me.  It’s a place where I can have a dialog with the image.  I learn where it wants to go and then find a way to help it get there.  And it teaches me something along the way.  Maybe it’s a new technique in Photoshop.  Maybe a new way to use an old technique.  Or maybe a surprising way of presenting the image that the original capture might not even suggest.  Regardless of what happens, I want to be present for and open to the possibilities.  For this series, all I knew was that I wanted to use monochrome, which accentuates patterns and textures.  As things progressed, I learned a new way to convert to black and white (calculations), new burning and dodging techniques, and received valuable feedback from critiques on NaturePhotographers.net.  As a result, these images mean more to me now than when I took them.  Lesson four:  Taking the picture is only the beginning.  Developing the image personalizes it.

The color of the saguaro needles changes over time. The newer they are, the whiter they are. Over time, as in years and decades, they change to black. So, the tops of the saguaro trunk and arms are covered in light-colored needles, and bottoms are covered in darker needles. This image, therefore, is of a young saguaro as I was able to photograph white needles along the main trunk while standing next to it. For older saguaros, these spines would have been black, and this would have been a very different picture.

So back to the original question:  What is photography for me now?  While it’s a continuously evolving thing, after this series, I’d say that photography is a meditation.  It’s a way to gain perspective both about the subjects I photograph and my ability to interact with them creatively.  It’s also an opportunity step away from the normal flow of events and focus on a single thing in order to better understand myself and how to be fully present in the moment.  In many ways, I also see this as an experience common to other creative pursuits. I’m not sure there’s a word for it, but photography practiced in this manner seems to provide a way to experience and express a shared humanity.  Lesson five:  We are all photographers, even if we don’t take pictures.