Embracing Shadows by CJ Chilvers

It’s become very fashionable in the last decade or so to reveal what lurks in the shadows, now that cameras have the ability to do so.

What could be more boring?

The best storytelling leaves your mind open to fill in blanks with your deepest hopes and greatest fears.

It's why the original Halloween, with it's lack of backstory and senseless nature, was the most successful independent movie for a quarter century. It's why the movie's remake, filled with backstory and explanation, was a comparative flop.

Halloween was an homage to Hitchcock. Hitchcock had similar issues. His mastery of suspense left the viewer's mind wandering for the length of the story and wanting more. When he filled in blanks (see the end of Psycho), he left his audience wanting less.

The same is true of photography. Shadows can be a tool for good storytelling, when used sparingly. It's yet another reason to reconsider your HDR setting.

The Best Photo Management Tool by CJ Chilvers

Everyone hates photo management apps and services. Just as one appears to solve all our problems, it's limitations become apparent and we try to escape.

Dave Caolo, an editor at TUAW, recently tried to take his legacy Everpix hosted photos and move them over to Flickr. The results were less than impressive:

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Relying on any one photo management app or service has historically proven to be heartbreaking. Here's the issues you may encounter:

  • Stripped metadata. This is the most common issue. Most apps and services do not take great care with the data that says where, when or how your photo was created. Or, if they do, they like to keep it to themselves. Export your photos and you may lose all the important background information behind it.
  • Compression. A lot of (mostly free) services will compress your photos to save to space. It's like taking your 8x10 prints and shrinking them all to wallet-size prints, only it's hard to notice until it's too late.
  • Database betrayal. Although many photo geeks have learned to steer clear of the above two issues, they're usually far too trusting of a database. Aperture, Lightroom, iPhoto and their online counterparts rely on the integrity of their databases to keep all the versions and all the information behind all the versions of your photos straight. Again, historically, this has proven problematic. You could go a very long time backing your Aperture or Lightroom database, before you realize you accidentally deleted a favorite photo months ago. It may be gone forever, even with a good backup strategy.
  • Obscurity. If you set up the kind of workflow and backup strategy that takes the above into account, chances are, you're the only person with access to it all. If you died tomorrow, your photos may be no more accessible than you.

The Best Photo Manager I've Yet to Find

It may not please the geeks, but the best solution I've found for all this is the humble book. Making a collection of photos into a book (even if it's just a year book of miscellaneous shots) solves several problems:

  • It's archival. Nothing digital is archival. Even some photographic prints are not archival. But a well-made book will last for as long as anyone could possibly care about your photos and then some.
  • It's accessible. You can die anytime you feel like it and your family and friends won't need to look beyond your bookshelves for your legacy,
  • It tells a better story. Instead of relying on fleeting metadata, in a book, you can actually write about what's going on in the picture. I have a box of my grandparents' photos and I wish they'd taken the time to tell me who's in the photos and what's going on. Books make this easy.
  • It's relatively inexpensive. You could order one for flipping through and another for safe keeping.
  • There's always a digital file too, just in case. Make PDFs as well. They're easier than databases.
  • Beauty. Books are beautiful. Templates have come a long way too, so you don't need to put a lot of time into the design...unless you want to.
  • Format and resolution agnosticism. A book doesn't care if you took your photos with a phone or a DSLR. The resolution of the photo need only be enough for the size you'd like it printed in the book. Chase Jarvis's groundbreaking photo book The Best Camera Is the One That's With You is just cover-to-cover low resolution, 2 megapixel iPhone photos (3G I believe). They look fantastic when presented in a book.
  • Fun. It's more fun holding a book of your own art, than opening a database. That should be enough reason alone.

This is how I'm approaching the problem: my computer is a digital shoe box. There are many ways to store my photos within it, but my computer is just one stop on their journey. I don't rely on any single app or service. I prefer what saves me time. With that time, I can make a beautiful book, hang a print and take more photos.

Whatever I use within the computer, I must be resigned the notion that it will ultimately fail, because it always has.

Cons by CJ Chilvers


My son, who just turned 2, took his first photo. He grabbed my phone, pointed it at his Cons, tapped the Hueless app and snapped away. Now, I'm sharing it without his permission. Welcome to photography, little buddy.

Should You Have a Portfolio? by CJ Chilvers

"Where's your portfolio?"

I hear this question a lot, particularly from those who'd like to find a flaw with what I've written about photography. They've just laid down $3000 on a lens and they're hoping I'm wrong and they're on the verge of a creative breakthrough.

The problem is, I don't have one. I don't want one. It serves no purpose I can justify.

I realize why people want it. It's so easy to create an online portfolio today, it's become the gold standard for judging a photographer's worth. Everybody can have one, so everybody should.

But what are you trying to accomplish by assembling a portfolio (online or off)?

Is it attention? If so, that's probably the worst strategy. As Hugh MacLeod puts it, "just another couple of snowflakes in the big art establishment blizzard." If you have great stories to tell, there's far better venues for getting attention than a portfolio.

Is it credibility? That's always a losing battle. The closer you get to your goal, the less you innovate. Trends become your friends.

Is it clients? You're trying to be a pro, which is fine, but then we're talking about commerce, not necessarily art. There's a different set of rules to apply.

If you dare speak out about your views on art, like I do, your credibility is really what critics are after. They'll seek to pick apart your portfolio to compensate for their lack of judgment. I don't see a reason to play by their rules.

The Amateur Advantage by CJ Chilvers

"It is the amateur - the enthusiast who pursues her work in the spirit of love (in French, the word means "lover"), regardless of the potential for frame, money, or career - who often has the advantage over the professional." - Austin Kleon, Show Your Work!


I've only started reading Austin Kleon's new book, but it's already speaking my language.

Unrecorded Podcast: We're Not Neanderthals by CJ Chilvers

The latest episode of the Unrecorded Podcast is out. Patrick Rhone and I got a chance to catch up with guest Michael Schechter, who had me on his podcast Mikes on Mics a few times. As usual, we just bounced ideas off each other and commiserated. The "podcast" isn't for everyone. Actually, it's just for us, but we do put together a newsletter of our notes for those who care to "listen" in.

How to Build a House by CJ Chilvers

Show up.

An artist builds a body of work by showing up every day and producing something. Even if it's a terrible creation, it's something that can be learned from and built on.

Over the past two years, I've been involved with the biggest artistic project of my life, building a house. I'm happy to report there seems to be no difference between building a book and a house.

There's teams of people, each with their own expertise, working towards a common goal. There's deadlines. There's a budget. There's management of expectations.

Most of all, there's showing up.

My father-in-law, a former custom home builder, came out of retirement to oversee the project from design to the smallest finishing detail. Every day, he was at the job site to open the gate for the workers. He inspected every package that arrived. He inspected every scrap that was thrown away. He made sure every inch of the site was immaculate before locking the gate at night. He's a pro.

For my part, after the design process, I showed up with every free minute I had from work to clean, lift, load and dig. I guarded the porta-potty on Halloween night. I cleaned new floors on Christmas day.

At first, I wanted to create a photo essay of the project. But, there's was no time to stitch together a story from my snapshots (I tend to post them to Twitter and ADN). Until the sun went down, and then some, there's was always work to do. We showed up for this project, which meant not showing up for our other projects.

That's my way of explaining the lack of writing and photography from me, especially for the past 8 months. It's also my way of saying that anything worth showing up for is worth showing 100% up for. I took a couple of years out of my life to learn how to build a home and it was well worth it.

This chapter is closed for me, except for the next 30 or so years of maintenance on the house. My next project is my next book. Maybe, I'll even post more.

Gearheads and Guitar Gods by CJ Chilvers

No one has delighted in bashing gear-obsessed geeks like me. It's always seemed like such a waste of the time and attention for some of our best and brightest to argue over specs instead of creating things.

This topic is a tired and, for the most part, an ineffective argument. It's the truth, but that's never mattered much online.

I'm always on the lookout for ideas that contradict my own, because the world is less boring that way. This week, I was listening to the radio and Dr. Drew was calling in to the show, trying to explain the erratic behavior of his famous former TV co-stars. When he got around to Adam Carolla, he explained Adam probably had a touch of Aspergers, which made him a great automotive gearhead.

It got me thinking. Maybe resistance isn't entirely to blame for our natural tendency to be gear geeks. Maybe, on top of resistance, some of us are physiologically more likely to tinker and fiddle than create. Maybe that imbalance draws us to our hobbies in the first place.

Maybe, instead of fighting their natural tendencies, gear-obsesed photographers and software-obsessed writers could embrace them and become product creators. That would be a big win for us all.

I could come to love these gearheads.


Guitar players are far more obsessed with their gear than any other type of artist I'm aware of and Premiere Guitar magazine has a great video series reveling in it. It seems guitar heroes are either obsessed with songwriting or creating signature instruments. It's off and on. If your favorite guitar god had an off year musically, chances are, it's the year they redesigned their signature guitar/amp. Anyway, here's a few guitar gods, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, showing off their favorite gear.  And, here's Stephen Carpenter of the Deftones, who created a few of the most talked about rock albums of the last few years, being the opposite of a guitar gear god.

Speaking of guitar gods, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani make music mostly for other guitar players. Do photographers tend to make photographs mostly for other photographers? Lenswork's Brooks Jensen struggles with this on his podcast.