The WCPF travelling critique was our last evening, and as ever there is something to be got out of sitting down and critically discussing the works of other photographers, especially if we then extend that to our own work. Some photographers get too caught up in the notions of developing a style or shooting a particular way thinking that their body of work will evolve through consistency alone.
That is like braking going uphill, sometimes it is necessary, but it involves a great deal of wasted energy. It is understandable though when the idea that photographic style is a filter we apply to an image. No this is not an anti-Instagram rant, and if that sounds like something we use to combat the symptoms of hay fever then now is an opportunity to catch up by clicking here.
But Instagram is a good place to start. Kevin Systrom, who was a co-founder of Instagram and who did very nicely, thank you, when it was sold to Facebook, had the idea seeded for the app when a Professor in Italy introduced him to the Holga camera, a cheap everything-you-pay-thousands-for-your-glass-not-to-do sort of camera that produces very retro looking pictures on 120 roll film. But that quirkiness actually forms the basis of the Holga’s modern-day appeal and yes, you can get filters to modify your everything-you-pay-thousands-for-your-glass-not-to-do to do Holga-esque images, just make sure you are well braced when you do because the weight of the irony of that is going to hit your wallet pretty hard.
The fact is film had/has its own look. Each brand would have their own unique ways of capturing and processing the light. Just in slide film: Kodachrome went through several “looks” over its life; Fuji was noted for its blue tones; Agfa was something else again; ditto Scotch, the list goes on.
Then there are/were the options/limitations in printing. Papers, inks, chemicals, sizes, frames, viewing options and conditions all have an impact. What they cannot do, however, is cover for lousy composition. Poor lighting. Wrong exposure. Unengaged subject. Surely filters / looks / processes / post-production can lend atmosphere to an image but unless the style is “Never mind the quality feel the width” they are not going to do much for our artistic integrity.
What we are looking for is a quality of the imagination, showing our individuality by drawing with light (Greek: photo – light graphy from graphe making lines or as we would call it, drawing). Style in the literary sense is about how the tools of language, clauses, spelling, grammar, punctuation and the like are put together to make an impression on the reader. We use light and shadow, directionality, the tools of composition and a photosensitive surface capable of recording the fall of light and dark on a subject in the same way. We fashion a statement on a subject.
What other people are doing is a start, but it is only a start. Copying what others have done, making a re-interpretation of something that has gone before, making our own statement, is a great way to learn but it is a means to an end. However, it is not the reason we pick up the camera (at least before we disappear up our own dirt pipes like the voice over on any given perfume advert). Understanding the technicalities by replicating the image is a learning tool, not an end in itself.
That said there is a notion that we can move between taking snapshots to making photographs. In so doing we develop, through habit, a photographic style. Whether it is a conscious statement or not. Perhaps we keep making the same mistakes, is that a style? Broadly yes but it is the elimination of the incidental and replacing it with the deliberate that makes a difference. It is that interpretation that is the seedbed of the individual’s style. That is when we start bothering less about what everyone else is doing.
Defining our style is one thing. Refining it is something else. Technical skills matter, you have to be able to apply the rules before you can start breaking them successfully. Purpose is the key. And lots of lots of practice. Lots and lots and lots.
Longtime sufferers of this blog will know that the world is divided into two. The Get-It-Right-In-The-Camera-istas and Ye-Accolytes-Of-Photoshop. I err towards the former, but that is a personal thing. The fact is we need skills in both, but that we are probably better at one than the other.
That said there is a lot of time effort and money to be spared in getting the thing you have in your head onto your computer file (that is what we are creating until the image is printed) in as close to finished form as we can in the place where most of the important elements and all the results of those irreparable decisions are made. The camera. Just don’t let it get in the way.
Having the camera and lighting skills gives us the option to manipulate what we see in the fashion we want it seen. Post-production then tidies up and polishes. That sequence is the one that lets our style evolve and show through. Is it the only way? I doubt it. Having the confidence in using the materials we have to hand to make our statement makes for a stronger more assured one. When the “rules” are broken it is to a deliberate effect. Style thus evolves through confidence.
An alumni night last club meeting, taken by former club member Tony Cooney covering his tour of Iraq as a Royal Engineer. It is the only time since I have been a member of the club we have actually been short of chairs for an event that became standing room only. Tony brought not only photographs but an interesting array of prints and pieces of kit that augmented a fascinating talk about his experience of, possibly, Britain’s most controversial war of the last 70 years. The Royal Engineers, “Everywhere where duty or glory lead” , have a long and very distinguished history in a role that is as old as the concept of a military. They go where the Army go. Without their skills the Army will not go very far at all. They provide and maintain the infrastructure that keeps the rest moving.
Tony’s pictures were taken at a time when digital was a “new” thing (technically nearly thirty years old but new to most of us) that was beginning to take a hold and film was the only option for “serious” photographers. We have certainly come a long way in the last decade or so. He took both digital and film cameras. At around 2 mega pixels for digital images at the time, you can see the point. Also Tony was using digital before it tipped the selling scales in 2007 which was the first time it outsold film cameras.
Tony stands in a now century old tradition, not always embraced by the authorities, of the squaddie photographer. The very first toted the Kodak Vest Pocket camera of 1912 and the Autographic of 1915, which found Their ways to war in the hands of thousands of regulars, volunteers and enlisted men and not a few women, of all ranks. The Box Brownie (1900-1934) was also vastly popular but nowhere near as robust. This everyman photography was a feature on all sides to a greater or lesser extent (A book has recently been published on the KVP in the trenches written by military historian Jon Cooksey) and its continuing significance as social record should not be underestimated.
Using average wages as a guide, the £1-10 Shillings of a 1912 model Kodak Vest Pocket bought during the Great War would take a £545 chunk out of an average pay-cheque today[i]. Mind you the average wage in 1912 was around £67 a year (about £6,905 in today’s value using inflation as a guide, but between 1912 and 2016 average wages far outstripped inflation). A Kodak Vest Pocket would take about 2% of the average annual wage to purchase, so not a huge chunk of change but substantial enough to ensure most of them, at least initially were probably in Officers hands as it represented more than a week’s wages for many – before we take out the cost of film and processing.
The British Army banned cameras that were not in the hands of Official War Photographers in 1915, for fear of the intelligence it could provide when captured by the enemy. All combatants developed a similar ban. Often it was overlooked and cameras at the Front if not exactly everywhere, were not remarkable but the subjects were and are.
This democratisation of photography, and we should not underestimate the role that the invention and mass production of gelatine based film had on this process – it was the absolutely key driver – produced an invaluable, if widely dispersed, social record of men and women at war, not the sanitised version of the official published record, nor the sensationalised one of the press, but the real lives and routines of the people who were there and the people around them. This is not to diminish the cost of this in lives lost and shattered, but is actually (and thankfully) but a small part of the whole and Tony’s presentation represented that much bigger picture. But when it’s you it is 100%. Tony spoke of the personal cost, how it has taken a long time to get not just the large amount of stories together into something he can show but also the necessary perspective to make the presentation work. Which it did.
Tony also had, not just the kids-everywhere pictures (roughly 40% of Iraq’s population is under 14, and war ranks fifth as the causes of death in the country) with their insatiable curiosity, but also the pictures from a family get together for which they were loaned a camera. For me that added more depth and breadth from what must have been, necessarily, a relatively isolated experience – even if, sometimes, as Tony related, an undeniably and demonstrably dangerous one.
So our thanks to Tony for an excellent evenings presentation, much to think about, and a very great deal to see.
[i] Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, “Five Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a UK Pound Amount, 1270 to Present,” Measuring Worth, 2017 . Using 1912 and 2016 data.
This week we had a speaker, Matt Bigwood, photojournalist for sixteen years on the Gloucester regional press and a freelance for very nearly as long who took us on the transition from mainly monochromatic film through to full colour digital and along with it the death of the profession of employed photojournalist. It is, as they say, what it is. Very little point in being overly nostalgic about it, film is now a hobby, an artistic statement, a curiosity or a course of academic study and digital is all.
Some of the effect of that we discussed in the last post. There is no denying that digital has made photography more accessible. A double edge sword that has proved to be as unsettling in its own world as any other technological “disruption” for in that accessibility has come a loss of a sense of it being special, of the combination of art and alchemy and with that some of the mystery some of the magic. And a lot of the expense, as least as far as news organisations are concerned.
For a time there were those who sought to hold back the tide of course, on grounds of technical inferiority, dynamic range, colour rendition, ability to enlarge, but when the pixel count got to the point of where it was good enough for the front page it was game over. But this pitches film v digital, one or the other, take no prisoners. A good way to lose what motivates us. If film floats your boat AND gets you out there taking pictures then go with film. Ditto digital. Unless we are making a living out of it, in which case this is an interesting question (maybe). Our customers want digital? Guess what we are going with.
So, we end up with having to scan your negatives anyway as a way of displaying and storing them and that on top of a process that was never cheap. That said there is a niche market and rumours of come backs of old film stocks abound (fantasy almost entirely, Kodachrome ain’t ever coming back in my far from humble), but the truth is the machines to make film are very old, there are no spare parts manufacturers for them and some of them are huge: We’ve used this link for the production of film before (part 2 here), but it is well worth revisiting just to take in the sheer scale of the manufacturing problem.
We might miss it, may even still use it, but film is and will remain a niche market. Digital has yet to match the look and feel of film (amazing on how many photographers seem to have forgotten just how grainy a Kodachrome 64 slide could be when projected) and when it does we will run into the same problem different clothing. It was a look with limited variation, because there were never that many manufacturers on the market in the first place. Digital has looks of its own but we weren’t viewing slides on 4K televisions, lap top screens, mobile phones, tablets, just projectors. The only question is do you like the look?
And let’s not forget that single lens camera sales are down by 84% 2016 over 2011.
And as already stated here and in Matt’s talk and the videos he brought with him that ship has sailed. He admitted to being nostalgic for film but not to the point that he is considering running his business on the model, for though there is most likely a market it is considerably less likely sustainable.
A little more perspective on the 35mm film angle. The last time there was a comeback for 35mm film was in 2011. Sales disappointed in 2012, this might be a cyclical thing but if it is it is not clear what is driving it. Dixons/Currys stopped selling 35mm film cameras of any type in 2005. Yet by the summer of 2016 film was making a “Stunning comeback” mainly driven by those new to the medium. Film was even projected to go away totally by 2020, according to some, though that seems unlikely now. The actual figures, the units, are not going to match the height of film – around 2001 when 19.7 million SLR’s were sold.
That is really something of an empty argument though and really the domain of the hobbyist and occasional professional artist. With the need for time consuming processes disappearing the need for the number of press photographers to cover events fell – memory cards could be plugged into computers. With the growing ubiquity of cameraphones the photographs of dramatic and not so dramatic events are taken and uploaded to social media often before the press are even aware. The final nail in the employed photojournalists career prospects. Now it is not unusual for media groups to have none whatsoever. Now it is all self-employment and whereas the need for the expertise in photography and, increasingly, videography still remains the nature of how that relates to the occupation of commercial photographer, as most are today, has changed.
Lyn James LRPS was our speaker, on the general theme of people and places. Lyn is a dyed in the wool lover of film. Not that he dismisses digital, but he loves the look and the workflow that goes with using acetate and gelatine based chemical medium to produce, eventually, a physical image, something that you can hold, in a process that we would call analogue in these digital times.
Analogue as a word goes back about two centuries to describe certain physical chemical processes, but the general use of the word expanded in the 1980’s with the invention of the digital (i.e. with numbers only) watch and was used to differentiate these from the traditional watch faces with hands. Basically it was a marketing term. Moving from there and with the expansion of computer science as a discipline, gradually out of a description of physical properties and into the binary world of the computer and everything associated with it into the general vocabulary has taken a little over two decades.
Film is of the analogue variety of image production. Whereas the production of cameras and camera sensors is a microscopic industrial miracle of the digital age as the production of film was in its hay day (part 2 here), the end user experience is very different. The sensor is not consumed in the production of a digital image, even though it sits in what we still call the film plane. The two processes are, very obviously, very different. The film until about ten years ago was the main stream medium. As such it was produced on a vast industrial scale using vast machinery.
After around 2007, when digital started to outsell film cameras, what was left was an industrial over capacity requiring specialist machinery built to individual specifications, was simply not sustainable on a commercial basis. Professionals, by far the biggest users, moved to digital. Some for reasons of novelty, some for more practical reasons. Sentiment doesn’t play much of a part when money is at stake and the digital medium was easily and rapidly distributable, suiting the photo agencies and news outlets better. Film availability went into decline as stocks and production lines were run down. But it never went away.
There is more of a craft element to film. Or more faff, depending upon your point of view. For this I am not talking about the actual manufacture of film I am talking of the perspective of the end user. It is far more hands on, is made up of more and elemental. There isn’t just one process to film photography just as there isn’t one sort of commercial film process, Kodachrome (K14 process) is different to E6 (process) slide films. By craft I mean the physical production of an image, starting with the limits of the medium. The need for dark room equipment and space, developing chemicals and washes, enlargers, photo sensitive papers stacks the costs up. You can’t do film cheaply, and not all films are capable of being home processed (Kodachrome for instance was not).
But ….. and there is a but for anyone who has done any amount of film photography, there is a magic, and that is the right word, involved when you see the image developing on the paper. You are more involved. Dodging and burning are about the only tools you have to hand readily and retouching is an art all in itself. Even so, every hand produced print is different.
Film also has its own look and it is a popular one. Lyn’s favourite slide (positive) stock was Kodachrome. There are different qualities to each brand of film and there is an irony in that so much of applications like Instagram seems dedicated to a filmic look. Although out of production these last seven years, there is a possibility of Kodachrome being brought back, though no time scale has been announced, nor anything beyond a feasibility study announced. However, it is part of a movement. One which, at the right scale will be able to sustain a profitable niche market.
There is a question of posterity in the dominance of the digital medium. Simply put viewing digital images is entirely technology dependent. In a pure volume sense more photographs are taken, fewer are printed. Once committed to print the image is no longer dependent on technology to be viewed. In itself this might not look to be a serious problem, but within the format of the image lies the seeds of its own destruction. Unless backward compatibility is built into future platforms the range of today’s formats will become unreadable. Redundancy is a problem for computers too. Formats but no pictures. Even then there is the possibility of corrupt files.
There are claims for the superiority of sharpness, resolution, dynamic range made for film, but frankly if they were that critical at least one of Nikon, Canon, Fuji, Sony, Olympus or Pentax would make a film camera. They don’t. The market at large is for digital images as mentioned above. Mixed lighting looks horrible, mind. Low light is very difficult to handle with a fixed 25, 50, 64 or 100 ISO slide film. Even Ilford XP-1, the most flexible of film stocks doesn’t help a great deal. Look is the main reason I would venture, look and working with 24 or 36 comparatively expensive shots and you are done. Basically work flow.
Having the limitation of a low, fixed number, of goes at getting something right, something worthwhile, concentrates the mind. At a cost. Per frame the cost is higher. It pays to be more deliberate, more critical than with the very low marginal costs of an additional digital frame. Not necessarily a bad thing. The initial cost for the camera body is lower being second hand. The lenses can come cheaper but if they also fit your digital system (assuming you have one) then there is a saving there to be had. The camera bodies also tend to be smaller and lighter and, of course, simpler.
Film is certainly a choice (Glitches at 48:35 for about 2 minutes but this is a good intro to where film is and why), and it looks to be expanding. It’s worth giving it a go if you haven’t and if you havent got a film body and don’t have a beer can or 32,000 straws hanging around (OK they expose straight on to photosensitive paper) how about shelling out £14.99 to build your own?
N E X T M E E T I N G
Creative Round of the ROC.
Member Adrian Cooke took us through some of his favourite landscape pictures last meeting and his presentation was well received by the members. We are now regularly fielding 40+ at each meeting and that has something, a lot, actually, to do with the programme. In the words of Butler and Yeats, “A good thing”. Active members mean a healthy club.
Adrian shoots a lot of landscape photography, he has a lot of it on his door step, nonetheless the fact that he showed us a wide variation of images of the same landscapes just goes to prove that no two images are ever the same, even when the subject is identical (Maybe). Adrian showed some scanned slide film images among the purely digital images and the colours were quite different in comparison. Now there are a whole lot of technical issues in scanning slides to digital, and the image sensor may not have the same dynamic range as the (negative) film, and just how much information you can get on film as opposed to a modern sensor, the way that each respective medium records light, standardisation of results, and a swathe of other pros and cons constantly rumble around like a number of other technical questions that seem to get in the way of people making pictures. None of those, and all of them, are my point. It is refreshing to sit back and rediscover some of the features that many people now can’t appreciate because they have never been exposed to the processes nor the outcomes. Sometimes I suspect that the memory of those images is superior to their physical reality. One day I will go for a rummage in the attic to find out. These technicalities were hurdles and barriers to entry, the number of photographs taken was exponentially smaller, but the role of mastery has not changed. Just the size, number and relative cost of the spanners it takes to make even a poor image.
Not that Adrian’s images suffered in the quality category, familiarity and technique were in evidence aplenty. Perhaps the most consistent point to come across was the importance of the focal point. There are a number of ways to promote the (usually single) focal point. With landscapes it is generally held that greater depth of field is desirable but, nonetheless the question still remains what is the focal point and where in the frame am I going to put it. Yep we are back to the thirds, fifths, sevenths and “Golden ratio” , so I will move on. The f-stop isn’t the only way of highlighting the focal point. Careful use of, or observation of, contrast and shapes will also do it, as, of course making it the largest thing in the picture (OK, obvious, but worth mentioning). It also helps with not providing too many points for the eye to rest on, and thereby confusing things, and that is less likely to happen if there are fewer places to fill them with.
The eyes journey around the image is important. The photographer creates that journey and the elements within it make up the story. As was stated at the judging of the last round of the ROC, for a photograph to really make an impact it really should be telling one story and one story only. As Adrian implied, these images don’t just happen they are created. Another feature of Adrian’s photographs were the role that lines play in the journey we make around each image through the use of horizontal, vertical, diagonal and converging lines in making patterns to give impressions of depth and scale or leading to the focal point.
Timing is also important. Adrian related how he tended to shoot towards sunset, though there were a good few early mornings represented in his presentation. This is the period of the “Golden Hour“, where the light has a different quality to that of the rest of the day and for which The Photographers Ephemaris is a great tool. Almost by implication this brings in the idea of longer exposures, which have effects of their own, pretty much demand the use of a tripod, for lower ISO settings tend to give better results with less noise but increase the problems surrounding camera shake. Almost counter intuitively this allows for the capture in motion, especially of water and clouds. Adrian discussed using ND filters to cut down the light and ND grads to help even out the exposure (back to dynamic range again – the range of lighting that a sensor or film can represent. Of course it helps when you don’t confuse your Infra Red Filter for your big stopper ND filter as I did on Sunday (apologies to Dan Ellis who I leant it to) but then there is something there about labelling things. Or in this case not loosing your filters. Maybe I should take note. Also Dan discussed the use of a polarising filter (and when to use one) and certainly this can have a quite dramatic effect on skies and cut down on reflections when the light comes in from the side. And of course not just limited to landscape.
Adrian’s presentation provided a thoughtful and thought provoking refresher on landscape photography, and the club thanks him for his time and effort. Next meeting we have a speaker, who will talk about editing and take us through the process using some pictures from the club. Marko Nurminem has worked at the “Very high end” in editing images, including for previous speaker Damien Lovegrove. See the link RCC EVENTS Feb_05_15 Marko Nurminen_No_Images for more information.
A N N O U N C E M E N T S
A reminder from Dan Ellis about the Ask The Club session. Get your questions in by 12th February, either via FB or the forms you can get from the table where the register is kept on club nights.