Category Archives: Insights

Images, insights and musings from Jonathan Kingston.

Ask, See, Do

I am often asked how many good photographs I get when I am out on assignment.  In the days of film, this question was framed “Jonathan, how many usable photos do you get per roll? ”   Today the question is simply reframed “What’s your ratio of good photographs to bad?”

It took me a long time before I could articulate an answer to the above question that didn’t leave me feeling strangely drained and awkward.  Not because I didn’t have an answer; there was a time in my life I knew precisely how many good frames I was averaging per roll of film and could return the figure as accurately as a cash register printing a receipt.  What always rubbed me the wrong way about the question was that I never liked the connotations of my answer – whatever the number was.  I disliked the idea that one of the metrics of how good or bad a photographer I was could be measured by how many good or bad frames I captured on a roll of 36, or on a memory card.

Many moons ago, I posed the same question to one of my mentors, Dewitt Jones.   He returned my question with a knowing smile and let just enough silence fill the space after the asking to make me feel like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.  When Dewitt broke the silence he said “If your asking that, you’re asking the wrong question.” Feeling a little like young Luke Skywalker learning the force from master Yoda I replied, “What is the question I should be asking?”   Dewitt answered, “The question you should be asking is ‘did I get THE shot’?” He then went on to explain, “You either get the shot or you don’t get the shot – it’s as simple as that.”  The light began to dawn in my mind and I swear I saw Dewitt’s camera levitating ever so slightly on the table behind his chair. “It’s not how many good shots I get, the question is, ‘did I get THE shot?’”

Seeing Clearly

So what is THE shot?  For me the shot is the image, or group of images that most effectively tell the story.  The frame(s) that capture both the reality and the feeling of the moment.

Cartier Bresson describes the shot as capturing the “decisive moment.”  Rikki Cooke describes his process with the phrase “it turned my head.”  Chris Rainier describes his approach as a “feeling in the solar plexus.”  In fact, every great photographer I have ever spoken with uses different words to describe the same thing – excitement.

So what do I do when I have that feeling in the solar plexus?  When my head turns to see the soft light gracing the pilgrims face?

Ask, See, Do

My process can be summed up in three words:  Ask, See, Do.

Ask – I ask myself: What is the story here?  What matters in this scene and what doesn’t?  How can I highlight what is working and eliminate what is not?  And importantly, when photographing people, I try to live by the golden rule by always honoring my subjects and asking permission whenever possible.

See – Do I see the story in my mind’s eye? Do I see this shot at my core level?  Am I seeing this shot with my head or my heart?  If I don’t feel anything when I take the shot, people looking at my photo aren’t going to feel anything. If I am filled with joy at the beauty before me or cry because of the tragedy in front of my lens, my hope is those viewing the image will be able to feel the same emotion.

Do – Can I let my technology and technique augment my vision as an extension of  myself, or is it going to be a barrier between myself and the scene.  If it is a barrier – how can I simplify to the point where it is not and still capture the frame?  Do I need to put away the DSLR and pick up my point and shoot?

Great photography is knowing the story, seeing it with my heart and capturing it in a way that allows me to remain connected to my subject. Great photography happens when subject, heart and technique connect; and when they do, the result is pure magic.

What I Learned from Five Years in Mini Storage

In 2002 I was a freshly minted graduate from Brooks Institute, and had just received the opportunity of a lifetime – a one year contract to move to India and teach at a newly opened photo college.  To facilitate a quick departure from the USA,  I took all my possessions and in a feat of amazing, Herculean and smart packing crammed everything into a 6’×10′ storage unit in Santa Barbara, California. In my mind, I envisioned living and teaching in India for a year, then returning to southern California with tales of adventure and glory and picking up where my life left off.   

This is not what happened.

Continue reading What I Learned from Five Years in Mini Storage

6 Rules for Photographers Entering the Business

A male rock climber scales an orange cliff at an area known as The White Mountain near Yangshuo, China (Model Released, Sean Ouyang). (Jonathan Kingston)
Taking pictures like this is the easy part of being a photographer.


From time to time I receive emails asking for advice from photographers who are just entering the business. Having recently replied to such an email, it made sense to share my answer with anyone who stumbles across this blog. The business of photography is evolving so quickly that marketing strategies that worked 1 year ago don’t necessarily apply today, however there are a few rules I have found to be true:

1) Only show work that you actually want to do. Editors and art directors love to pigeonhole photographers. You might have the best shot in the world of “x” but if “x” isn’t what you want to photograph – don’t show the shot.

2) Find a way to make yourself visible to the people you want to work for. 10 years ago this meant sending out promotional mailers on a regular basis to editors and art directors. Five years ago this meant sending out emails to the same. Today it means finding the social media channels those art directors are watching and being active and visible on them. Tomorrow it will mean something different. I don’t have the magic formula for this… I am experimenting just like you are.

3) Do good work. Don’t prove – rather continually improve.

4) Plan on starving. It isn’t feast or famine in this business – its only famine. Either you don’t have enough work to eat, or you are too busy to eat. The end result is the same either way. As a side note, most pro photographers net LESS on a year to year basis than the starting salary of school teachers.

5) Be nice… to everybody. The photography world is small and incestuous.

6) Find a way to survive. Some of the best photographers I know could not make it in the business and some of the worst continue to make ends meet. Your skill as a photographer only takes you so far. Your skill as a businessman/woman is MUCH MORE important. It is a long term game of attrition. If you can find a way to survive – you will win in the end.

Natures bow

View of the pacific ocean and sea cliffs on the north shore of the island of Molokai from the Mo'omomi Nature Preserve.
View of the pacific ocean and sea cliffs on the north shore of the island of Molokai from the Mo'omomi Nature Preserve.

On a recent trip to Beijing, China I met a fabulous violinist named Lin.  As a violin player myself there was an instant connection and through the course of the evening I got to hear Lin’s story.  Lin, had always wanted to play the violin, but came of age during the cultural revolution when the Chinese government was destroying every western instrument in sight.  Rather than giving up his dream to play, shortly after the cultural revolution ended, Lin was able to get his hands on an instrument.  Even though he was well into adulthood at this point in his life, and did not have anyone to formally teach him, Lin dove in with both feet.  Practicing for hours every day, Lin taught himself to read music and play by listening to the recordings of other musicians.  With many years of formal lessons behind me, I can tell you this is an extraordinarily impressive feat.  Lin did all this while simultaneously starting a company and becoming a successful businessman in Beijing.  Listening to Lin play, I could close my eyes and easily imagine myself listening to a violin soloist practicing for a concert at the Lincoln Center.  In fact Lin’s skills have progressed to the point that one of the most famous luthiers in Beijing now gives him violins to play – both to get a sense of how much they are worth, as well as to give him a chance to break in the instruments.

Walking across the wild landscape of Mo’omomi Nature Preserve at dawn on the island of Molokai with giant untamed ocean waves pounding their bass drums on the shore, I wonder at the similarities between Lin playing the luthiers violins; and God, nature, the universe – whatever you want to call it – playing the scene before me.  Violins are endowed by the hand of the luthier with a voice at their creation, just as my eyes are have been endowed with their own perspective on the world. The violins voice develops and sweetens over time and practice until the gentlest brush stroke of bow on string brings forth notes of graceful music, just as my eyes become more adept at resonating to the brush stroke of natures brilliant music.  The violin cannot accomplish this without the violinist, just as my eyes cannot see the beauty before me without the hand of nature pulling its bow across my soul to resonate ever more sweetly in its presence.  The hands of the master reach for the Stradivarius.  One day may my eyes be that instrument.

Photoshop for the Soul

Sunrise at Mo'omomi, Molokai, Hawaii.
Sunrise at Mo'omomi, Molokai, Hawaii.

I’m sitting in front of my laptop computer as is often the case after a photo shoot trying to sort the keepers from the flops.  I’m so tired from rising up before the sun to bump down a red dirt road in order to be in the place of maximum potential this morning that its hard to keep my eyes from closing into a peaceful sleep.  Despite the excitement of wanting to see my images scroll by in the filmstrip at the bottom of the computer, my eyes grow heavy.  Then – an image catches my eye.  Its not dynamite, but it has potential.  It is a wide angle view of one of the wildest spots on the island of Molokai, the Mo’omomi nature preserve.  The shot tells the story of the untamed coast line, it has good light, interesting clouds, and a foreground.  All the right elements for a wide angle shot – but somehow the image falls flat.  There is no drama due to the digital photographers curse of RAW files, like day old beer, being a tad bit on the flat side.  No problem I think to myself as my fingers begin gliding down the controls available to ‘fix’ the image in Photoshop.  Moments later after a few clicks and slides the image finds its voice. I mark it with two stars as a keeper and triumphantly continue my edit.

Scrolling through the next batch of images, I think to myself, ‘wouldn’t it be nice if there was a Photoshop for the soul?’  Wouldn’t it be nice if, just as we fix images on our computer hard drives, there was a way to ‘fix‘ the traumas in the hard drives of our brains.  Well – according to professor of psychology Jonathan Haidt – there may be a photoshop for the soul – and its called writing.  In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt sites research contending that people who write about difficult events in their lives, and as a result of the process of writing about this event gain increased insight, show a dramatic improvement in physical health over the next year. To paraphrase the book, he suggests that one writes continuously for fifteen minutes a day, for several days without editing or censoring ones self; and without worrying about grammar or sentence structure;…the crucial thing is to get ones thoughts and feelings out without imposing any order on therm – but in such a way that, after a few days, some order is likely to emerge on its own.  Before one concludes… one needs to be sure to answer the following two questions: Why did this happen? and What good might I derive from it?

In 2005, after being diagnosed with and then cured of pancreatic cancer, Apple computer’s Steve Jobs shared the following thoughts at a graduation ceremony:

You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards, so you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.  You have to trust in something, your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.  Believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path, and that will make all the difference.

You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backward!  AND THAT WILL MAKE ALL THE DIFFERENCE.  There is photoshop for our souls – and its called connecting the dots with words!

As these insights come to me, another image from the filmstrip catches my eye.  Like the last one, it only needs a few adjustments in photoshop to start to sing.  I pray my life only needs the small slide of the clarity tool to do the same.