What Lies Behind : Photographic Insights – Volume One

Camera information:  Fujifilm X100F | f/8 | 1/640th | ISO 200

I recently re-read one of my favourite photography quotes from Ansel Adams:

“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it”

This statement is absolutely true.  To quote David Hobby, we should all strive to become thinking photographers.  I love it when my students ask questions about a photograph because I can see their minds at work.  Sometimes these questions focus on how an image was made (the craft), sometimes they focus on why it was made (the vision), but they always show a student’s desire to improve their craft.

Speaking for myself:  I may occasionally want to know something about the technical aspect of an amazing photograph, but far more often what I really want to know is the photographer’s thought process as they made the image:  What drew their eye in the first place?  What did they see in their mind?  What was their process for the creation of the image?  How did they go about achieving success?

With this in mind, I have spent the last year writing a book featuring my images and the stories behind them.  The book will come out later this year, but in the spirit of open source education I have decided to publish 2 dozen of these photos and essays here as well.  My hope is that everyone can benefit in a small way from this sharing of ideas, much like I have benefited from other photographers who shared with me.  Let’s get started by discussing the image above.

This photo was taken in Paris last year, while I was in the city teaching my street photography workshop.  My students were all out on assignment and I was sitting for a few minutes, just watching people on the streets and planning my next lesson.  Practicing observation without a camera in your hand is something I highly recommend; it can be done anywhere, at anytime, and it makes you sharper for when you are out shooting.

While people watching I saw this gentleman turn the corner and walked toward me, perhaps a block away.  I was immediately struck by two things: 

1) how distinguished he looked with his hat and newspaper tucked under his arm.  And,

2) how beautiful the late afternoon light looked falling on his face, especially the way the light was spilling through his hat.

I knew this gentleman would make a wonderful photo subject, but a great subject alone is rarely enough to make a compelling image.  When I shoot, I am always looking for subject, moment, light and background.  I want to create a cohesive image, one that ties as many of these elements together as possible.  I had the right subject for sure, and he was already in perfect light, so it was really just a matter of looking for the right background and waiting for the right moment.

I quickly scanned the buildings across the street and knew I had the potential for a decent image when I saw the poster on the wall of the bearded gentleman with a hat on.  This would look great juxtaposed against my subject, which is a technique I use often in my photography.

I shifted my position a few feet to get the right composition and then turned my attention to the camera.  When I am out and about I leave my Fujifilm cameras in Aperture Priority Mode, usually around f/8 if the light is good, and I use Auto-ISO to ensure I achieve a decent shutter speed (to freeze the motion of a moving subject).  I may change these settings in specific shooting scenarios, but I always return to them when I start walking again.  The only thing left to do was to quickly adjust my focus (manually focusing), bring the camera up to my eye, and time the shot correctly.

For all of the times we miss images, this was one, I knew, that I had timed correctly as soon as I took the shot.  A few seconds later, the subject turned another corner and the moment was gone.

Post production on the shot was minimal:  I applied Acros+R in Lightroom as this image was captured as a RAW file.  I made a few small exposure adjustments, added a little clarity and sharpening and, finally, used a square crop to remove distracting elements from the frame that pulled focus away from the subject and the juxtaposed background element. 

This last step was very important to the final image.  Somebody once said to me that photography is the art of exclusion, that we should remove distracting elements from the frame until we are left with the essence of the photograph.  This is something that we should always try to do before we click the shutter of course, but sometimes that isn’t possible and we have to rely on a little post production to take the image where it needs to go.  In this case, the final crop met this goal.

I am happy with this image, both because I saw it in the first place and with the final edit.  I had missed two great shots earlier in the day (poor timing), so it felt great to see the finished image in my mind and then to be able to quickly bring all of the important elements together to make it happen.

I hope you enjoyed this first article.  If you would like to see a write up about a specific image I have made please let me know in the comments below (if it is from my Instagram, just leave a link to the photo in the comments below). 

I look forward to many more conversations about the process of photography!



Upcoming Workshops:


Renewed Focus | A New Year

I spent New Year’s Eve photographing the wedding of a wonderful couple, people whom I admire tremendously.  I am no stranger to working on December 31st of course, having done so countless times in the past as a paramedic and as a musician, but this time it felt different to me.  At the end of the night I was exhausted from shooting for ten hours but I left the wedding feeling inspired, both by their love for each other and by the opportunities that they now share together.

And now, as I settle into 2019, I find myself reflecting on the last year and giving careful thought to where I want to take my work this year.  It is clear to me that 2018 was the most successful year I have had:  I worked with wonderful clients, taught amazing students, delivered photography presentations for a wide variety of clients and traveled the world.  I am so thankful for these opportunities that paid the bills, kept the lights on, put presents under the tree and allowed me to spend another year working on this crazy thing called photography.

On reflection, however, I don’t feel like I always pursued my long term artistic and business goals with intention in 2018.  While I always approach every job, every workshop, every presentation and every client with the utmost sense of professionalism, I can’t escape the feeling that much of the year happened despite my efforts, rather than because of them.  When I look back, it feels a bit like 2018 was a fast moving river that just carried me downstream from January to December.

Running a full time business is a lot of work, especially when you are balancing it with caring for a family and all of the day to day tasks that occupy our time.  Being a photographer can look glamorous from the outside, but the reality is very different:  There are websites to update, files to shoot / edit / process / backup / deliver, social media sites to run, book keeping to do, taxes to pay, insurance to renew, personal education to complete, etc.  It is very easy to feel busy when you are running from one small task to the next, but busy does not always mean productive.  If you aren’t moving the big rocks, if you aren’t completing the projects that move the ball further down the field, then you’re really just treading water and maintaining the status quo.

Do you ever feel this way?  Like the seemingly endless day to day tasks of working and living consume you to the point where you don’t get the really important things done?

I have huge photography related projects that I want to accomplish in 2019.  Projects that will help people, projects that my students will benefit from, projects that will be of value to my clients, and projects that will bring me artistic joy.  My goal in 2019 is to attack these projects with intention, with purpose, and to no longer allow “busy work” to interfere with the completion of these goals.  Yes, the day to day tasks of running the business will still need to get done, but I will no longer allow them to be a barrier.

Do you have a photography related goal that you’ve been putting off?  If so, I encourage you to make 2019 the year that it gets done.  Hell, I’ll even help if I can, but let’s make this the year that we do the things that have been sitting relentlessly in the back of our minds.  And, to all of the clients and students who I am going to be working with this year:  We are going to have an amazing time, make wonderful photographs, and approach photography with a renewed sense of purpose and wonder.

I’m pretty damned excited.



2018 | Reflections of a Photographic Year

It is December 23rd as I post this, Christmas now only two days away.  Somehow it managed to sneak up on me again, the year end rush of activity suddenly coming to an end as we prepare to spend time with family and friends.   I watched my daughter’s final elementary school Christmas concert this week, the usual joy a parent feels while watching their child perform mixed with a touch of melancholy this time.  My daughter is 12 now, off to high school next year, so this really is the end of an era for our family.  Life is full of these transitions though, isn’t it?  Change is life’s true constant; we can try to resist it, we can choose to embrace it, but rarely can we stop it.

For me, 2018 was a year of successes and failures, of reflection and growth.  I started the new year full of excitement, as detailed in a post I wrote called 2018:  From Transition to Realization.  I vividly remember one morning in January, just a few weeks into the new year, when I was shooting in San Francisco.  The light was amazing, I was nailing my photos, my workshops were filling up and I was overwhelmed by a sense of joy and gratitude.  It was a great way to start 2018.

Looking back, I see many successes that I am thankful for:  Six group workshops in Vancouver, Toronto and Paris, 14 private workshops with students in Vancouver, 44 Skype lessons with students from around the world, 12 presentations for various organizations, over 40 blog posts written on this site (including my popular five part series on Street Photography Composition), two articles written for other publications, five weddings photographed and I was featured in a few new interviews.  

Yes indeed, there is definitely a lot to be thankful for.

Without a doubt, however, the best thing about this year was the time that I got to spend with my family.  Sure, there were many stretches where I lived in a hotel room for a week or two while I was teaching, but on the whole I spent more time with them this year than I ever have before:  family walks, looking for crabs on a beach in Hawaii, watching sunsets… it has been joyous.  Finding work / life balance is always a struggle, but I feel like I took one step closer to it this year.

Celebrating success is important, but equally important is to embrace failure… to own it and to learn from it.  For me, specifically, my greatest regret was not publishing my street photography book in 2018.

I remember reading an interview with one of my favourite musicians where they were asked: “When do you know a song is done?”  Their answer was that a song is never done, you just eventually record it and walk away from it.  Upon reflection, I can see a direct correlation between this quote and my first book.  I am a lifelong student, a lifelong educator and, perhaps most importantly, a lifelong artist.  I am always out shooting, creating new work, and incorporating new ideas into my workshops and Skype lessons.  As I do this, I cycle back to edit the book to include this new content.  I’m obsessive about quality, so I want every product I deliver to my clients to be the best that I can create.  

I realize now, however, that this process became a barrier to the completion of the book.  That will change in 2019, for this project and for one other.

Personally, the biggest decision I made was to talk freely about my journey with PTSD a few years ago; to feel comfortable discussing it on this site, on podcasts, in social media, in interviews… wherever it was appropriate or valuable to do so.  

The truth is that PTSD changed the trajectory of my life, ending a career as a paramedic that I loved.  In hindsight, however, it also freed me to pursue something I love even more (full time photography).  After a lot of soul searching I made the conscious decision to be vulnerable and open about my experience, because I know there are people in this community who are also suffering and I want them to know that they are not alone.  I have dedicated my entire adult life to helping others; as a paramedic, as an educator, as a photographer, and if my honesty and openness can help just one person find their way out of a dark place then I consider that a win.

What did come as a surprise to me, as I reflected on my journey, was the realization that my photography changed significantly as I healed from my PTSD.  It goes without saying that photography helped heal me, but I didn’t expect the inverse to happen and to have my photography change so much too.  This realization became the foundation of a presentation I have delivered 4 times now entitled “Finding Creativity: What PTSD Taught Me About Photography”.  

The response to this presentation has been overwhelming.  Countless people have thanked me for sharing my story.  So many people have bravely shared their story with me.  We have all talked about how important photography is to us and about how much it helps us.

These conversations have helped people.  They have helped me too, and I have large plans for all of this in 2019.

And now we are just days before Christmas and the end of another year.  With that, some thanks are definitely due:

To my family:  You always support me; without question, without hesitation.  That can’t be easy and I will always love you for it.

To my students:  Thank you.  You are wonderful.  All of you.  You help support my family but, much more importantly, you inspire me as an educator and artist to serve you as best as I can.  I have enjoyed every minute of every workshop this year.  

For those who are interested, I have six new workshops scheduled in 2019:

 I would love to see you there!

To my photography clients:  Thank you for trusting me with your important images.  Whether you hired me for a wedding, a portrait session or to do product photography, it was an absolute pleasure being a part of your world for a short period of time.

To my Official Fujifilm X Photographer peers:  You are all amazing, and your work inspires me daily.  Thank you for that, and for the wonderful friendships as well.

To Fujifilm Canada:  What can I say?  Your cameras changed my life, a refrain I hear daily from people within the Fujifilm community, and my relationship with the company is something I am very proud of.  I look forward to representing Fujifilm for many years to come.  

To my friends in the photography community and anyone else whom I may have forgotten:  Thank you.  I wish you all the best for the holiday season.

In Summary…

I entered 2018 full of plans and ideas, some which worked out well and others that didn’t.  I can say with absolute certainty that I am entering 2019 with fewer defined plans, but also with a much greater sense of purpose.  I am eagerly looking forward to teaching more workshops and photographing more work for my amazing clients in 2019.  I WILL publish books.  Perhaps most importantly, I will continue to use my voice and love of photography to inspire and help those who are struggling in their own lives.  

It is only fitting that I end this post with a few more of my favourite images from 2018.  I love these images because of the story they tell, because of their visual interest and because of how I felt when I took them.  I will see all of you in 2019, fresh out of the gate with a new post about my updated Fujifilm gear pack.  

I wish you and your families all the best for the holiday season.  Thank you for a wonderful year!