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My interview with photography professor Stephen Cysewski

Categories: Interviews, Most Popular    Tags:   2 Comments

Some time ago I had the privilege to ask professor and photographer Stephen Cysewski some questions. He was very gracious to include lots of details in his answers. Stephen Cysewski is Professor of Computer Applications, Emeritus at University of Alaska Fairbanks and has been living in Alaska since 1967.

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Question: In your course you’re encouraging your students to answer the question: “Why do I take photographs?” I have also noticed that you’re creating “photographic scenarios” to help your students think through this question. What are some reasons why it is important to think about one’s intentions for taking a picture? Do these scenarios help your students think more before they shoot pictures?

Bare trees in Creamers Field in Alaska.
Bare trees in Alaska.
Photo by: Stephen Cysewski

All the photography techniques are a means to an end, that end is communication. Photography can be used for many different purposes, most students are too focused on “pretty” pictures and family memories. I am hoping to encourage students to find out the wide varieties of things that can be communicated with photography, ultimately I want people to find their own unique style that expresses their own perspective on the world.

Cameras change, the photographic problems remain the same, dynamic range, subject and camera movement, image quality, color or tonal accuracy, framing a scene, etc. By looking at scenarios you will develop a stable means of evaluating what went right and what went wrong and to be able to apply your hypothesis to any given camera that you are using. The same concepts apply to editing, a scenario allows you to think outside the context of specific software. What are the problems that you are trying to solve is the most important question, cameras and editing software are means to an end of solving problems. Using my Links page I try to expose the students to a wide variety of different photographs.

Question: What are some photography concepts your students understand and implement very quickly? In other words, what are some easy concepts that have a great impact in one’s photography?

The easiest concept and the most crucial and liberating is that you can take photographs of anything that makes you feel, good, bad, sad, happy, bored, angry; just take the photographs. Do not get stuck on only “pretty” pictures. If you could only use words to write poetry you would be pretty limited in your ability to communicate, the same idea applies to photography. Technique is only a means to an end. There are some awesome photographs that are technically messed up, there are many photographs that are technically excellent that are boring and forgettable. Technique is a means to an end, the end is the photograph.

Question: On the other hand, what are the most difficult concepts for your students to understand and implement? And a follow on to that: what are some things that help them get better with the difficult things?

To evaluate and learn from your own photographs, to use them as a process for understanding both your motivation for taking photographs and as a method to learn to improve your technique.

Question: I picked up another phrase from your course syllabus “If you do not organize your photographs you will be overwhelmed !”. How important do you think it is for a photographer to keep his/her pictures organized ? Do your students seem to grasp this truth right from the beginning?

Not in the beginning, it takes awhile to see your photographs as a reflection of yourself. If you do not have a method to re-experience your photographs you will not grow as a photographer. People need to think about organizing photographs, it is like creating a database, it is a creative and abstract process. You can get really messed up with time, subject, technique, quality of the images, archiving, and they can work at cross-purposes. It is important to develop your own style and think deeply about what you are doing.

Question: How do you organize your own pictures? Or to use a more technical term: what is your photography workflow? What software do you use and how do you back up your pictures?

On the computer, for each year, I create a yearly folder, 2009 Photographs. Inside that folder I create three folders:

2009 Photographs
  2009 Original Photographs
  2009 Current Projects
  2009 Finished Projects

In the 2009 Original Photographs I create a new folder each time I add photographs to my computer

2009 Original Photographs

I might add a qualifier like 070909Kenai to a folder. I do, after a month or so, a selecting process on the original photographs, I delete the junk, but that is a very liberal interpretation of junk.

I import everything into Adobe Lightroom and use it to tag my photographs. I will also write the tags to the images using Adobe Lightoom.

I will then select and export photographs that I want to work on to the current projects folder, when I am done selecting, editing, and sharing, I move the folder to the Finished Projects Folder.

When Adobe first came out with Photoshop Album it was a liberation, I am now fully committed to Lightroom and rarely even open Photoshop.

I back up to external hard disks and keep one of the hard disks in a different location. All my photographs also go to the Arctic and Polar Regions Photo Archive and the University of Fairbanks Rasmusen Library. My Tacoma and Seattle Photographs go to the Tacoma Public Library photo archives. I send a hard disk up each year to the archive and they are backed up to a super computer in the university.

Question: What books would you recommend for someone wanting to get better at photography?

I have a large collection of photo books. What I recommend for people is to go to a large bookstore, Barnes and Nobles, Borders etc and to browse the photo book area, not just technical stuff, but photo books also. I also recommend getting RSS feeds from a large variety of photo resources. I have created a web log of photographs that inspire me, it is split into two similar blogs. The URL’s are and

Check out Stephen Cysewski’s websites and links:

Personal coaching  Video course  Basics book  Picasa book  Reference book

Updated: June 12, 2014  Categories: Interviews, Most Popular
Tags:    Comments: 2 Comments
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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Lorena Sims October 29, 2009 at 11:34 pm

He is indeed a great teacher.


vlad November 2, 2009 at 6:12 am

Thank you Lorena for your comment. Glad to hear you liked professor Cysewski. He was definitely very nice to answer these questions for me.


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