There comes a time when, like our speaker Ann Cook FRPS FRGS MBFP FBPPA, on a welcome return to Reflex, you have a considerable amount of work to reflect on. OK there is a considerable chance that yours won’t cover the extensive geography that Ann has been able to cover, but as that old Honda advert used to make the point about, to someone, your life is exotic.
What are the stories you can assemble from that work? In the term of the story, the narrative, we are often told – and it has been asserted here too – that a photograph can only tell one story or it becomes confused. That is the perspective of us as photographers, the makers of this story/image/narrative. From the point of the viewer we make our own story, of what lead to this, what this is and what happened next. As humans we are hard wired for stories, we make narratives if detailed ones aren’t provided to us and we will meld and fold the one’s we are given into new ones of our own. The stories are not necessarily complete, nor do they have to be.
The photograph is, in this instance, a pointer, a way post, but the destination is one of our own making and each and every one of us has a slightly different destination prompted into mind. That’s quite a lot from what is, essentially a subject, a fall of light and a background. Ann made a lot of taking the opportunities presented to us – those that fall to the prepared. As she said, again a recurring theme in the blog, you make your own luck. Ann illustrated that being shepherded on a bus, as long as you are sitting next to the window to control boarders (what’s in frame) and reflection, is no barrier to getting stunning vistas that go on to sell. Being aware and being prepared gives us a far better chance of being successful.
Even so, we still need an empathy with our subject (the imaginative assigning to an object feelings or attitudes present in oneself – being as one with, a part of, the atmosphere of what we are photographing). This because not everything that drives the narrative in a photograph is visual. We often hear talk of “Connection” and that, more often than not, is driven by composition. Back to that old thing again, for sure, however, the arrangements of objects within a frame is a very powerful driver of viewer connection with a photograph.
Lines, for instance, have different emotional qualities (at least in art theory), depending on their shape and direction. So: converge parallel lines to create a vanishing point (a concept that has been around since the Renaissance) to create depth and perspective; diagonals are dynamic, suggestive of movement and change; horizontals give a composition a sense of quiet and peace; vertical lines feel powerful, solid, permanent; straight lines feel formal, deliberate, man-made; curved lines, especially an S-shape, feel casual and add sophistication, nature, grace. Shape, similarly, has a profound impact on the feel and connection of an image, as does the use of space.
These are all tools, and there are many more and they are there for learning and there for using even there for ignoring but the thing these three attitudes have in common is deliberation. Being deliberate about the way we frame and organise objects for impact on our viewers. The fact is that to photograph that thing in our minds eye we need to become fixed on the essence of the thing we are looking at and then become a problem solver, just like Ann’s bus problem, which gives a different prospective on Kappa’s assertion that if it’s not good enough it’s because we aren’t close enough (in this case to a window to prevent reflections and stray elbows).
These last two paragraphs may look like separate and only vaguely related points, but they are not. In order to visualise those concepts of line, shape and space we have to be looking for them. Ann’s two pictures from Angkor Wat, one of the temples and one of the crowd that had gathered to look at the temples, were taken from different angles but from the same spot. One is quite serene the other very crowded and busy. They each have a different tempo. The one has a diagonal line of the rising sun behind the black mass of the unlit temple, the transition between night and day. The other, a huddle following the natural curve of the shore line several rows deep feels much more energised. The lines of people become a shape of its own. To get the crowd picture Ann had to wait for the crowds to thin, to keep the impression of the press of humanity but also to make it something that the eye can relate to. Incidental or otherwise the fact is the contrast between the two photographs made for a tension that one without the other simply did not have. OK the crowd scene was never going to be anything other than a throw away line, but it told a truth that the sunrise picture did not.
Ann had us look and decide which versions we preferred on many of the images she presented between a colour version and a black and white. The black and whites seemed to take on more from the interaction of shapes and of course there was a fair split in preferences. Basically the advice in these digital days is shoot in colour and process suitable images to black and white. The choice is a lot easier if we start with the idea that what we have is a black and white photograph. The conventional technical wisdom is shoot in colour and process in black and white, but in order to bring these two things together it is useful to know what are the effects of choosing monochrome.
Black and white is a bit of a misnomer as what we are truly looking at is pretty much everything in between. Absolute black is one end of the theoretical scale and absolute white its opposite. We render the images through the tonal contrast that colour produces when converted to shades of grey. There are a lot more than 50. You can desaturate your colour image and adjust the contrast accordingly, you can play with colour channels (subtle rather than huge effects usually) or you can go through the camera’s black and white options, they pretty much all have them, but they will all be jpeg. Some may be DNG or TIFF files, but that is a function of your camera. There is the HER route, or the filter routes that you can apply through apps like Snap seed, photofunia, funny.pho.to/ etc etc. Above all monochrome tends to make more of shape and line by taking information out about colour, but as with everything else it is a matter of personal taste. Black and white will not overcome bad composition or lighting.
So, a lot to think about, Ann Cook, thank you for another interesting and stimulating evening.
This last fortnight we have covered ROC round 3 and it was our turn for the WCPF prints, where we could exercise our own critiquing skills. This is always popular as members can be more involved than is necessarily the case on competition nights. On my table we got into some earnest questions not so much as which pictures we favoured but why that was so. Agreement wasn’t necessarily required, and we came to our 1,2,3 decisions for each category through a simple majority vote. That wasn’t really the point of it all though. The theming of those prints gave me an idea for this weeks blog.
When we look at other people’s work we are looking at other peoples way of seeing, which is not ours. Sounds deep. Essentially if we want to improve we have, at some time or other, to challenge our own way of seeing, discuss our way of seeing. Using the WCPF and viewing the competition work we can put that into some sort of perspective. Yes I like that – why? No I don’t like that – why not? The Japanese have a saying that if you want to know the answer ask, five times, why? Basically break down the reasons to the core. That teaches us something about our own preferences and we can, if we take note of these things, start to make a difference to our own work through it. Or, as I am sure I have quoted to you before: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – get it out with Optrex” (Spike Milligan). It has to be a conscious decision though, to do something about it.
Sounds like a slow process? Well it is. Our world is awash of nail-it-in-five-easy-lessons advice, yet that isn’t how humans learn. Sure you can get the basics right in about 20 hours but making the learning our own, that takes longer. Practice makes perfect as I am sure you have been told. Along with “Fail is just the First Attempt In Learning” and other useful things you want to strangle people for. And until we start to take on the critical eye, start taking and rejecting opportunities as part of a conscious effort, we just go round in one big circle until we are torpedoed by our own failed expectations. Bit like the sinking of the Bismarck.
But it’s a hobby. We do because we enjoy. There is no other compulsion than the one that gnaws at us to get the camera out of its bag and go shoot something (in the nicest possible way). There is always something on to point the camera at, the local “What’s On” tells us so. Left to the random too much can get missed or we end up trying to do too much in too little time. Opportunity generally isn’t a problem. Having a direction, some rails to run on, some clues as to what to look for, that is a great way of focusing the attention. Welcome to the world of the photo-project.
In its simplest form a photo project is a theme, a camera and a (regular?) space in the diary. There are as many projects as photographers, it seems, and that is because, to work, it has to be personal. We have to have some emotional attachment to what we are doing or it simply will not get done. The first point to take on board is that a 365 day project, a photo a day, sounds great when we start out but I am willing to bet that most of them don’t get completed, or get modified into something more suited to time and effort available. 30 day and 7 day projects are also popular and are more feasible. Timescale has a role to serve as we are effectively making an appointment with ourselves. The subject can be anything, but has to be something we have to put more than the usual amount of effort to complete. Then there are subject variations like: shoot 100 strangers (the serial killers favourite); A-Z; 52/26/12/any random number Photo-walks; pick a colour/theme; one focal length; the Roll of 12/24/36 (back to the old film days where you limit yourself to a film roll on a shoot); The 100 ISO challenge (fixed ISO can also be done with fixed aperture or speed); manual only focusing; plus a host of others.
Of course there is also the ongoing project, the one that lasts over months and years, that can involve deeper immersion in the subject where the style you develop adapts to the conditions your subject is most commonly found in. Osmosis, by and large is not a thing that produces results particularly quickly, if at all. The whole planned thing gets you thinking. The whole well I didn’t expect that thing we find when we get to a location challenges us to adapt. These two things help us develop but the third leg of the stool – looking critically at what other people have done and why we like it or what we would change about it and how we apply it to our own work- puts what we are trying to do in a context. That gives us something to learn and to improve with.
OK so this is based on a my-best-shot-is-my-next-one philosophy, but continuous development builds over time. It is about DELIBERATE practice. Now practice does not have to be devoid of fun, again I say this is our hobby, not our penance, but if we take Henri Cartier-Bresson’s point quoted in the last blog that “Your first ten thousand photographs are your worst” we miss the point and that point is the our first ten thousand deliberate photographs are our worst. And that is OK. Deliberation is the difference, and that can be as simple as going through your latest batch of images and thinking “If I were to take that one again I would ….” and then doing it. That is where we came in. Five members of a photographic club sitting around a table deciding what attracts them to different photo’s, and why, as a basis of going out and doing something about it.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Club member Julie Kaye on underwater photography.