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The 12 Bar Photo Technique

There’s a guy out there by the name of Keith Carter whose work you might want to get to know. He’s an American artist, photographer, and educator who has a way with words. When you have time, watch this 43 minute video on what he describes as the Twelve Bar Photo Technique.

It begins with a little-known fact about every piece of music ever written, from “Happy Birthday,” ”On the Road Again,” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” all the way over to “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony;” the composers had only the 12 notes of the chromatic scale with which to work. And the way a piece sounds is determined by how the composer uses the notes available to them. Only 12 notes, but what a variety of results! I’m sure you’ve never thought much about that; I know that I haven’t.

What blows my mind about the video is the way in which Carter shows that this truth from the world of music is equally true for a photographer. We have only 12 “notes” to play, and how we select and arrange these notes determines what results. So…what kind of “music” do we want to play?

Here are the only 12 “notes” photographers have, according to Carter:

  • Subject matter. What do you find interesting?
  • Light. It’s all good but how do you want to play it?
  • The frame. How do you want to use the edges?
  • The horizon. Must it always be straight?
  • Camera placement. Parallel and perpendicular to your subject?
  • Depth of field. How do you play it? “It isn’t whether it’s right or wrong!”
  • Motion. Motion can be a powerful note for you to play.
  • Symbolism. Will you allow your image to reflect a metaphor?
  • Tools. Camera format, black and white or color, lens; all can be magic wands.
  • The physics of vision. You are free to move to the side or rear of your subject.
  • Vantage point. High? Low?
  • Context. What are you going to do with your image? How will it be viewed?

Now you may well disagree with this list and wish to add or take away one or more items, but Keith Carter makes a lot of sense to me. This brings me to the photo above, which belongs to Susan Hay and is being used with her permission. As the leader of the Photo of the Month contest, I never vote. But when I saw this being hung on the board I was immediately attracted. What attracted me is Susan’s applications of exactly what Carter is talking about and it was one of the June winners. Why? I think it was because of the way in which Susan selected and played the “notes” that are available to all of us.

Look again at the image and think about it.