Focal points Photography

Development in Style

Things have been busy lately in all good ways. This experiment of going part time at Apple while attempting to build my photo business has been exactly what I needed for my sanity, business future and sleep schedule. Where things are going is still a bit unsure but sure enough there has been no lack of interest, my schedule is almost as busy as it was before, except now I’m getting to actually work on projects instead of just watching them pile up.

Taking more jobs I’m starting to experience a transition in my work, I’m starting to grow creatively. I’ll elaborate in just a few.

First off I am still working with ChicagoNow and my photo blog Focal Points, although admittedly I don’t publish as much as I’d like to. I’ve got some exciting ideas to freshen things up over there (and here) and I hope I’ll get the chance to share them with you. It’s just a matter of time before I figure out the right way to do things.

My latest entry about my visit to Blue Island I think is my favorite so far. Blue Island was full of grit and decay and realism. The stuff I’m attracted to and really the purpose behind that blog, it has sort of a purest’s angle. Here is a sample shot.


Speaking of ChicagoNow on Tuesday they had their monthly tweetup and I was the official photographer you can find those shots on the ChicagoNow Staff Blog. Here is a shot from that.


Pretty different right? Obviously both in subject matter and approach. Walking around a party with a flash is still a new experience for me. I spent pretty much 2005-2008 refusing to use anything but natural light / room lighting because I think it requires you to hone your craft. For a long time I was averse to shooting with flash because of the effects it causes when used improperly. I also feel like people who heavily use flash photography tend to be annoying. I usually prefer to catch people in the moment than to get people posing.

However I’m at a point now where I feel like I’ve done enough work pushing the Apertures and ISO of my camera and lenses that it may be time to learn something else. Also, the nature of shooting weddings and events are requiring me to move to using flash. So far so good, already my opinions on the subject are starting to change. We’ll see where this leads.

Now that I’ve done all that talking about working with flash I’m going to show you a picture shot without it. Here are my friends Austin and Allysa at my friends Evan and Shama’s wedding.

© 2010 John Morrison - subism

I still prefer this look to any other, there is a softness to natural light that just feels more human to me. I’m often told that I’m more a photojournalist than an editorial shooter and I’m not sure how I feel about that. My preference is to make something feel real, that captures a moment… that by nature sounds like photojournalism but I’m perfectly fine with that moment being faked or set up as well. I want my photography to be believable.

If there is one thing that I’d say that grounds most of my work it’s that.  Realistic beauty. Even when if it’s faked I want the viewer to feel it in a real way. Some would say this holds me back, I think it makes me better. Every tool, every trick can be used and overused. This is sorta why I shy away from HDR photography. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s very often beautiful (my friend Megan does particularly good work) but more often than not it’s overused until an image has no depth, no black and no white at all, things become just overblown over-saturated messes of photos. It’s walking that line that makes you skilled, using something in moderation and creating something beautiful is the right way to go.

When I do use it I try not to over-use it.

© 2010 John Morrison - subism

Some might tell you that photo isn’t “true HDR” because I actually have black and white points. I would tell them to go frak themselves. HDR is a tool like any other.

That’s sorta the same way I feel about flash. Now, this is not a knock against studio photography. As photographers many of us are obsessed with light and the fact we can control it for our artistic expression is the equivalent of cavemen learning to harness fire. It’s not something I’m taking for granted, however in this day and age there is an obscene amount of editorial / studio photos that look the same in boring ways. I don’t want to be like that.

Every model on every magazine cover is made up like crazy, lit to death and then photoshopped back to life. I don’t want to do that. I’d like to walk that line and find that balance to create something that is exciting while being somewhat real. I think that’s how I’ll stand out… my editorial work will be informed by journalistic / natural style.

A major influence on my work has been Clay Enos. Clay shoots entirely with natural light and works in Lightroom to do everything else and it’s those restrictions that make him better at what he does. By confining himself creatively he inherently becomes more creative.

The thing is I don’t want to be Clay either. I love his work but there are things I don’t like about it either. I want my own style. It’s just a matter of finding exactly what that is. I think the last few years have taught me well. Now it’s time to learn some new toys and continue to find a balance.


Chicago Focal points Photography

The Siren Call of Blue Island

Not long ago, I received an email from my friend Paul in NY. Paul, among many other things, is an enthusiast of great beer and was writing me for some assistance with a recent discovery.

Apparently, Guinness is testing a Black Lager beer in the Chicagoland market. Paul, knowing my passion for good beer, knew this would piqué my interest, and it would take very little coercion to get me to track it down. Sure enough, I did. However, the only place where it’s available for purchase that isn’t a bar was located in Blue Island, Illinois. Just south of Chicago. Seeing as I’d never been there before, I figured this would be a good opportunity to explore and photograph.

I hopped on I-94 and briefly followed signs to Memphis and made my way there. My first impression of the town upon my arrival was that it felt like a city lost in time. Much of Blue Island has a beautiful 1950’s charm to it, the downtown area (along Western Ave – yes, the same one) is filled with historic buildings. It would be easy to imagine it bustling with people going to the local Woolworth’s back in the day.

Sadly it seems time and the economy have not treated Blue Island especially well, and many of the buildings are empty. Despite that, Blue Island’s charm shines through in its decay. Maybe it was just the light on this particular day, but the sun seemed to shine on these old buildings and give them an air of urban friendliness.

In some ways, Blue Island feels eerie with its charm. Like the dinner party scene in “The Shining”, almost as if the ghosts of what once was here were still hanging around inviting me to join them. I felt drawn to the area, wondering to myself: “Could I live here?” The answer, of course, is no but, something made me want to ask.


Focal points Photography

A friendly walk through Ravenswood

I’ve mentioned before that although I am typically a Canon shooter, I love my Panasonic GF1. I first learned about the camera from my friend James. Since that purchase, almost all my photos on this site have been using this camera and its fixed focal lens.

Recently I was introduced to James’ friend Bradley, a passionate Leica shooter. The three of us swapped ideas and opinions on our respective cameras. We decided it would be fun to spend a day wandering a neighborhood together and shooting to get three different perspectives on the area.

We met at noon right after James got off air from CHIRP radio and started walking right from the CHIRP offices in Ravenswood, an area most of us were not very familiar with.

For me, this was a good opportunity to learn. Although I consider myself a very experienced street shooter and technical photographer, I always love taking the opportunity to pick the brains of others. Walking with my two friends was something I found challenging at first as very often the three of us would wind up shooting the same thing, and it was important to me to have some originality. However, as I walked I noticed I was taking significantly fewer photos than the two of them. The question I then began to ask myself was, why?

The problem with street photography is that, over time, there are only so many stop signs you can shoot before you bore your audience and yourself. I suspect that my shooting was more conservative because I’ve developed more of an eye for what interests me. Ultimately this means there is less I am attracted to, but the photos that come out, as a result, are stronger because I’m not wasting shots on things I don’t love.

Selectiveness is a discipline and a skill that is not to be taken lightly and one that it has taken me years to develop. In the age of digital cameras and nearly functionally unlimited storage, I believe we’ve lost the selective process in the craft. In the days of film we would be limited to 24-36 exposures, and that would be it. As a whole we were forced to be much more selective with our shots and it taught us to be better photographers. Now we can simply throw away bad shots. I like to limit myself to a number of exposures as if we are limited to a single roll of film. This is something I will explore more in the future.

As we ventured through Ravenswood, we found a good mix of parks, restaurants, and industrial spaces. This diverse mix caught our eyes and intrigued me. What follows are my photos from that day—all shot on my GF1. I will try and get Bradley and James to share their shots as well, as I find it particularly interesting that we often shot very similar subjects with very similar cameras and wound up with very different results.

Chicago Focal points Photography

A Little Bit of Cicero


Recently I spent the day visiting a friend at the Academy for Global Citizenship and found myself with some free time down on the south side. I decided to take this time to opportunity to wander around some of Cicero.

My experience with the south side of Chicago has been limited thus far, something I’d really like to change. If there are some great neighborhoods you think I should check out please let me know in the comments.

This particular day was a very clear and sunny one, what attracted my eye was the uniform houses and old 1950s feel of the buildings themselves. I was pleasantly surprised to stumble on an auto yard with some tires left out that made for some incredible texture. Admittedly I know very little about this area as I just sort of wandered in but I’m certainly glad I did.

I’ll let the photos do the talking from here.

Chicago Focal points Photography

Critical Mass 6/10 – Part 2


(On Wednesday I published a photo set and article discussing the perception around, reaction to and purpose of Critical Mass. This is a follow up to that piece with my account of the Mass.)

On the last Friday of every month Chicago’s cycling community descends on Daley Plaza and around 6 they take to the streets in an effort to overrun and control traffic in an event called “Critical Mass.” Last Friday, June 25th was no exception to this tradition.

When I first moved to Chicago I had a mountain bike, I learned quickly that while this worked out great living in the Northeast it was terrible for the roads out here. I eventually purchased a new bike, started riding to work daily and eventually taking part in several community bike rides. However last year when winter set in I stopped riding for almost a year.

Last Friday I pulled my bike out of storage, filled up the tires and intended to make it to Daley Plaza in time for the ride. I have taken part in three ridings of Critical Mass since moving to Chicago but this one was different for me. I barely made it in time.

On my way to the plaza I blew out a tire and had to make a pit stop at Johnny Sprockets to get it repaired. The staff there was helpful and had me quickly back on the road.

I got down to Daley Plaza around 5:30, surveyed the crowd and picked up a map of this month’s route. Around 5:45 the other cyclists started circling and by 6 it was time to “mass up!” The group took off down south, eventually touring through Chinatown and then back up through the west side of the city before heading back towards the loop.

All the while the event was pretty mild. There seemed to be no large disruptions and the majority of the drivers that found themselves delayed due to the event seemed to take it in stride as riders passed them shouting “Happy Friday!” while waving a smiling. There were of course a few exceptions but overall the experience was welcome, jovial and friendly.

The two previous “masses” I’ve ridden in went through the North side. The different course of this trip was a welcome one for me as my experience with the South side has been limited. I was pleased with what I saw. As we passed under the highways I found parts of Chicago that reminded me of Brooklyn and others of San Francisco. It was profoundly eye opening and exactly the kind of experience that Critical Mass should be about. After the route looped back through the loop it head east to towards the lake. From there the riders went over to the museum campus and along the Lakeshore path. This was decidedly my favorite part of the trip. I watched people fish along the lake and walk the path waving and smiling. It was shortly after this that I saw the other side of Critical Mass reared it’s ugly head.

As I mentioned in my previous entry Critical Mass sometimes gets a bad name due to the actions of a few individuals, well it was after the Lakeshore path when that happened. The road from the path turned up towards the road again and as few riders took off. At that point more and more riders followed their lead, mob mentality took over and much of the Mass attempted to take over Lakeshore Drive.

I, like many, held off and watched the Police block off the path, begin knocking people off bikes and saw this as my cue to exit. It’s moments like this that make me understand why there are those who dislike Critical Mass.  All in all the bulk of the riders used their better judgement but the actions of a few can tarnish the perception of the whole.

Now that I’ve had a week for me to collect my thoughts I’ve decided I still very much value and appreciate Critical Mass and what it offers to our great city, I just wished everyone did, riders included.