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 The Art of Intuition

Intuition is defined as the ability to discover truth without reasoning, as knowledge gained by quick apprehension. This is a philosophy that has fallen out of favor in recent times, as the world in general-and photography in particular-have become totally dependent on technology. Careening down this hi-tech highway, with equipment and techniques seeming to become out-of-date within months of introduction, photography seems to be heading towards an antiseptic, soulless goal.


Individuality and intuition

The concept of the individual-in terms of a strong, creative being-has become politically incorrect, as it implies an unfair advantage held by a relatively small group of people. There will always be free-willed, imaginative workers in every human endeavor, and they will naturally rise to the top of their chosen profession.

In the field of photography, there has always been a handful of people, during any given period, that are recognized as the best in the medium. Occasionally someone will invent a particularly catchy gimmick and will garner a brief attention. However, photographers who steadily produce strong work and don’t rely on a flashy style will continue to dominate their field. They possess a wide array of skills and have mastered the technical aspects of their own style of photography.  There is one talent that they all possess that cannot be gauged or quantified-this immeasurable ability is intuition.

All master photographers have complete technical control over the medium, and after learning their craft, they moved forward into the netherland of instinct. This is a difficult step that requires incredible faith in one’s inner resources. Letting go of the panacea of technology is akin to taking a first step as a toddler, knowing that there will be a fall at some point in the process. After years of studying the myriad technical aspects of the medium, this leap of faith revolves around the photographer willingly putting that learning behind him/herself and, in essence, forgetting it. Of course, technique cannot be truly forgotten, but must be forced into the recesses of the mind, only drawing on it after the intuitive process of choosing a composition is complete.  Intuition is also an important part of printing, as a normal print may not be right for every composition. Knowing when to sacrifice certain aspects of an image, when emphasize one part of the photo over another, this requires intuition.

Horse and cart

During my tenure as a workshop instructor, I was regularly confronted by a strange phenomenon. Students would often have a deeper technical knowledge than mine, but would regularly choose compositions based on the ease of achieving a final image. It was often impossible to convince them to expose an image based on an emotional reaction to the composition. This step, relying on their intuitive response to any given composition rather than a technical response, was one I seldom convinced many of my students to make. Intuition is a strong individualistic characteristic and cannot be taught. It is possible to develop this trait and it is an idiosyncrasy that, to one degree or another, everyone inherently has. The most difficult lesson in photography involves forgetting everything you have learned-an implication that is frightening but necessary. It requires a suspension of belief and knowledge to make an intuitive leap.
The intuitive process, by definition, is hard to quantify. It is an amorphous subject, difficult to discuss and impossible to teach. It is, however, incredibly important to the creative process, especially in photography because the technical side always threatens to overwhelm the intuitive aspect. In photographic terms, emotional content is difficult-if not impossible-to achieve if there was no intuitive response  by the photographer to the initial scene. There must be a commitment towards whatever subject is being photographed, and, above all else, there must be an intuitive approach.


Steve Mulligan



Godec’s Photo Supply interviews the woman behind Camera Karma: Heather Oelklaus on her own photography tips and the reasons she became interested in photography.

(Photo to left: “Duck and Cover”)

Godec’s: What really got you interested in the process of developing photos and taking photographs?

Oeklaus: When I was younger, my father was really into the idea of cameras and all the fun stuff that came with them, like filters and all the great aspects of a camera. I was kind of inspired by these things he was doing with cameras, so when I got my own little camera, I was using it as often as I could! Later on I ended up building a dark room from the ground up for a person I was just doing prints for originally! After that my interest really peaked! Before I knew it, setting up darkrooms and taking film photographs were the first things on my mind!

G: What has really kept you interested in photography this whole time and not given it up?

O: Well, in my college years I majored in sculpture thinking that I knew everything there is to know about photography. But really there was so much more to be explored in photography and the process, as well the art of it! That really has kept me going in it, as well as the fact that while everyone is moving forward in digital photography and all of these modern things, I’m really just pushing backward in time and discovering all of these amazing ways of taking and developing photographs! That has definitely kept me interested.

G: As a photographer, what are some tips that you could share to anyone with the photography bug?

O: The key is to always be prepared and if you see something and you’re interested in taking a picture of, stop and take it! if you are driving and you see something like that, go for it! The only pictures your going to remember are the ones you regret not taking. And it never hurts to always make sure the lighting is good, or the photograph will be just as dull or bright as you see it through your eyes.

You can go to Heather Oeklaus’s website at to check out some of her work!

Interview by Sophie Bird


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On Photographing Ice…

The natural world offers an unlimited cornucopia of subject matter for the discerning black and white photographer, ranging from delicate details to the classic grand vistas. The display of potential compositions can oftentimes be dizzying, making the selection and cropping of any given scene very difficult. These compositional choices are perhaps the most difficult aspect of the photographic process. Technical control, while occasionally daunting, is gained through repetitious practice, and once mastered will never abandon the photographer. The elusive and intuitive ability to see-to select powerful compositions and produce fine prints-is never guaranteed, is always shaded with a certain amount of doubt.

The abstractions that occur in nature are wondrous and demanding, requiring an open mind and intuitive eye. This quirky subject matter has become, over many years, my favorite obsession. This aspect of the natural world is best showcased when temperatures plummet, and waterways begin to freeze. Ice can take many shapes and forms, ranging from small, delicate details, to the large, grand views that happen when lakes and rivers freeze. As with any subject, ice presents certain technical pitfalls, photographic problems that must be solved. These solutions will, after being worked out, generally hold true whenever the same subject is photographed.

The first technical conundrum will be the tonal range. There are often no true shadows in ice compositions, especially in details. The tonal range tends to start around Zone VI (a light gray), and run up to a bright white. While there is no rule that a B&W print has to have darker tones, high-key prints, photos with only highlights, tend to be harsh, offering the viewer no compositional base.

This problem can be offset with the extreme flexibility offered through the Zone System. This system allows the photographer to manipulate tones within the negative through a combination of exposure and development. If there is, as an example, a two f-stop range between the tones in an ice scene, and if you expose and develop it normally, the final print will only contain highlights, rendering it fairly harsh and boring. By taking a meter reading of the lowest tone-which may be taken either with a spot meter, or by placing an averaging meter close to the desired tone-and then closing the indicated reading down two f-stops, you will effectively drop that area down two zones. If need be, the tonalities may be lowered more than two stops, and this is done by closing down more f-stops. Each drop in aperture translates into one lower zone. As a rule, you won’t want to lower any given tonality more than three stops, as the shadow detail will begin to disappear. In cases where the lower tone detail isn’t important, the drop in aperture may be as extreme as the scene requires.

Dropping the lower tones is the first step in spreading out the range. Raising the upper tones will finish this process, and this is achieved through development. The cornerstone of the Zone System is that exposure controls shadow densities, and development sets highlights. Cutting development depresses the highlight densities, and extended development time expands them. When a range requires spreading, a push in development is called for. Taking the recommended normal time, gradually begin to push past it, using small, incremental increases. If a normal time is five minutes, push the film up to six and one/half minutes. This will approximately equate to a one-zone push. Pushing the time up to eight minutes will translate as a two-zone push, extending the highlights even further up the scale. Experimentation and printing will hone these times, and gradually you will work out what works within the framework of your photography.

In the case of a scene with a two-stop range, we would drop the shadow reading two stops, and push the development. In essence, this is forcing the tonal range to open up, altering the original scene into a negative with very different information than what was contained in the original composition. This technique, in essence, is allowing the photographer to under-expose and over-develop the film, stretching the original tonal range far beyond its true appearance. However, there will often be ice situations that contain a normal to extreme tonal range, and these compositions must be approached with a different technique.

When a particular composition does contain a full range, from shadows to highlights, the more classic system will come into play. By picking the shadow that should have strong detail (zone III), metering only that area, and then closing down two f-stops, the tone will hold detail. In most instances, the development will need to be cut, so as to hold detail in the highlight (which would be a zone VII). By lessening development times, you are squeezing the upper tonalities down into a range that will be printable. This type of negative will then print in a standard manner, making use of all information contained within the negative.

There is a third possibility that occasionally will appear, that scene where lower end tones are missing, and if introduced, would detract from the image. While rare, the possibility exists, and the photographer should be open to recognizing it. When dealing with this situation, choose the strongest highlight, the one that should have just perceptible detail (zone VII), and meter it. Then open the reading up two f-stops, using that as your exposure. This is turning the Zone System on its head, as you are exposing for the highlights, and ignoring any other meter readings. As odd as it seems, this will give a workable, high-key negative. If there are any shadows in the scene, this technique won’t work, as all lower end detail will likely disappear.

Composition is always frustrating, and is the most difficult aspect of the photographic process. This holds true for ice photos more than with most images. Cropping out extraneous elements is always good policy, but becomes of tantamount importance when working with abstract subjects. By eliminating anything that gives scale to an image, by cutting out anything that offers a viewer a clue to the reality of the subject, you are enhancing the sense of abstract while veiling any intrusive elements.

In most instances, there won’t be a horizon line in an ice photograph, a fact which allows the photographer to tip the camera to any degree required. This camera play will assist in cropping, and will tend to emphasize the abstract nature of the composition. This holds true especially for details, but is a technique that can be applied to most images. There are no rules, allowing free play for your imagination. If it will improve a photograph, you may want to tip it upside down or sideways. Initially, these details are hard to figure, defying all compositional attempts. On a recent wintery hike, I spent 45 minutes working with a small frozen pool. After making an exposure, I decided that my cropping was still too loose, and moved in closer, eventually making a second exposure that eliminated any scale.

For more classic compositions, ice may be used as an accent within the photograph. Ice-tipped tree branches, for example, add an interesting element to what otherwise might be a mundane scene. Small patches of frozen water within a greater landscape may also add an important element, particularly when placed in the foreground. These will be more classic scenes, and you will be using the ice as a secondary element, but it is a technique that can work well.

Then you begin printing, further decisions will come into play. During exposure, composition, and development, a series of choices have been made, culminating in a negative of certain densities and compositional delineations. The negative will contain a certain amount of information, but how this translates into the final print is very much up to the photographer. The over-all contrast range must be selected, as will smaller tonal areas within the image. Whether to enhance the range, or conversely, when to compress it down, dropping upper or lower tones, these are also important choices. The myriad technical selections will be determined completely through intuition, through a visceral reaction to the photograph.

A viewer’s eye is always initially drawn to any highlights within a photo, a fact that emphasizes the importance of these value placements. By carefully composing a photograph of ice, balancing out the various tonalities, this type of image can be wildly successful.

Through the winters, I have always actively sought out ice formations, and this subject matter has become one of my favorites. Whether tiny little patterns in a small alcove pool or larger sections of the frozen landscape, the ice within the natural world has always intrigued me, and the rewards have been generous. To paraphrase the rabbit, the water is stiff, and the possibilities are endless.

Steve Mulligan