We have had Round 4 of the ROC (see website for results) and a presentation by the Dream Team which both show what you can do with a bit of application – and a lot of planning. So, is there a magic formula to improving as a photographer?
The simple answer is “No”. Anybody trying to sell you an alternative is peddling snake oil and the likelihood of success is about the same, though that wouldn’t stop them claiming any advances as proof positive.
The “Through hard work” answer is a partial truth, there is no denying that application is part of it, but a Protestant Work Ethic alone isn’t going to affect the desired outcome. After all if you just do what you have always done, you are going to get what you have always got, as someone, maybe Henry Ford, or was it Mark Twain? Could have been Albert Einstein, or somebody else, once said. And there is truth in it. But not the whole truth.
Direction comes into it. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up somewhere else”. That was Yogi Berra, and yes we’ve used it before. Direction and hard work, we are starting to get somewhere. The right direction and hard work. The work might be hard but it doesn’t have to be unenjoyable. Rewarding, directed, hard work. The reward and how hard we work for it are linked are for sure. Nothing quite gives us a lift as an image that comes out as we saw it.
None of this, otherwise sound, advice gives us a point to start from. Again there is an obvious but not very helpful answer to this. We can only start from where we are. “I wouldn’t be starting from here” said the eponymous Irishman when asked for directions, and I know what he meant. The first job, then, is to decide where we are.
And this involves looking, but looking with a purpose, looking critically at what we are doing and finding some photographers whose work we admire and practising (here’s a start if you need one, but it is just a start) what we like in their photo’s. Join sites like Flickr (the club has its own page, put some contributions up) or 500px where you can build galleries of your own favourites and try doing your own versions of them. Keep experimenting around a theme and you will start to see some improvements as long as you apply a critical eye to the results.
If we want a starting point then we could do worse than take Robert Capa’s dictum that “If your photograph isn’t good enough then you aren’t close enough”. A photograph tells one story well and cropping in on the essential detail leaves less room for confusion. It doesn’t matter whether you zoom with your lens or zoom with your feet (there are differences but they are subtle, real but not really for today’s argument, and all to do with perspective) but it can have an effect, will have an effect.
We are aiming to tell a story with a single detail. When we are looking at our scene through our viewfinder our mission is to find the detail that makes a difference. That can be a look, the curve of a line, the repetition of pattern, a contrast in colours, or something else. There will have been a something though, and that something is the thing that caught our attention. This is when working the scene comes into its own. This works whether we set out to take a particular picture or are just wandering through the landscape looking for inspiration. Once we find the something, the key, we can use it to unlock the potential in something that has taken our attention.
Or as Aristotle sort of put it, we start seeing when we stop looking. Technically it is known as Inattentional Blindness, and happens when we exceed the processing speed and capacity of our brains. We can use this to our own advantage by letting go of putting everything into context and just following the things that catch our attention (paying due consideration to our own and others Health and Safety of course). Basically our brain is trying to tell us something, so shut up and listen.
And the best camera settings for that? Three options. The camera decides, you decide or something in the middle. Most photographers go for something in the middle. Essentially we are playing with the exposure triangle and the notion that the best that our camera will produce is a combination of shutter speed, aperture and ISO according to the prevailing light conditions. You deciding is full manual. This is a preference, rarely a necessity, but it is worth learning because it teaches you about how your camera captures light and the worth of capturing light and shadow.
The other two options are let the camera decide, “P” or “Auto”, or something in between, shutter priority, aperture priority, exposure compensation. Full on auto will get you an acceptable picture most of the time, after all camera companies spend an awful lot of money on researching these things and writing algorithms to match. But it can be fooled. The in between range from scene selection where you alter the elements of the exposure triangle by selecting the symbol closest to the conditions you are shooting in, to setting the importance of the aperture or shutter relative to the ISO you are using. Control is what you are opting for or out of in various degrees. Most “Serious” photographers seem to shoot in aperture priority if that is any guide because that gives the most direct control over depth of field without having to fiddle with the other two sides of the triangle.
There is no right side, there are preferred sides there are sides that make certain situations easier. The fact is that, as a hobby, we have the luxury of having the time to play, experiment and fail a lot on our way to getting better. Joining a Photography club or an active photography interest group is part of that.
N E X T M E E T I N G
1st June 2017 19:30 – Guest Speaker: Sue Winkworth: “On The Road To Mandalay.”
(Deadline for John Hankin and Stan Scantlebury shield entries)
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.
Mac Bouchere FRPS was the first speaker of the season and his aim was to prompt us to look at things a little differently, sometimes new things sometimes the same things, in his talk “Bending the light”. Mac presented us with a wide range of examples and he talked about the differences that prompted him and the importance to him of pre-visualisation. Not invented by him but certainly popularised by him, Ansel Adams made pre-visualisation a way into getting the feelings behind what he photographed.
In essence what Mac was putting across was the next step from getting the camera off Auto. Auto is great at getting good results from a number of situations, but it is not particularly discerning and it’s not really what we shell out all those readies on. The other settings give you increasing flexibility before you ever get to post production and given the minimal marginal cost there is very little to stop us experimenting. What Auto does is make decisions based on the algorithms derived from the analysis of many, many thousands of images to derive a set of averages that can be applied within the dynamic ranges of the chips that are bought or manufactured by the camera makers so as to provide us with acceptable images in those situations. Putting a random, but nonetheless convincing number on that, let’s say 80% of our pictures. There comes a time, as our own Gerry Painter pointed out last year, when those acceptable images are just that. Acceptable. But with something missing. Not quite what we visualised.
We can move on to programme modes, that give us a little more control in what we accent and prioritise in terms of light and dark in our images, also in terms of chroma all the way to how much and how intense is black and how much and how intense is white within certain narrow boundaries. In order to truly exploit that we have to explore the more manual options that affect the exposure triangle all the way through to full manual and, of course, post production. Mac’s point was that it doesn’t have to end there and we can, through digitising our print and slide collections, give those a whole new lease of life too. We can push, pull, stretch, colourise, monochrome, blur, merge stain, grain, crop to our hearts content, not just on the images that we take now or have taken relatively recently. Also, and I think most importantly, Mac urged us to get the images we want.
He was quite open about the images he showed us, the ones that would never get anywhere in club competitions to the ones that had won medals. The point he was telegraphing by doing this is that, certainly as amateurs, but it extends to professionals too (they just have more limited opportunities to do it and he is one of those), is that we should use in camera and post production techniques to craft the images we have in mind. There will be glorious failures and successes along the way, but those will be our expressions and our learning opportunities. If we also curate our back catalogue, by which I mean actually go back and look at our “keepers” critically and with a fresh eye, then post production also provides us with opportunities to craft new work from old. Over time tastes, techniques and skills change and grow and we have a useful basis to go back and re-work some things.
You can do this now. Go back, pick a frame from, say two years ago (you really must get round to freeing up that disk space), and rework it. Better yet randomise your choice. You do not, absolutely do not, have to have advanced photo-shop skills to do this. Use something like Google’s Picasa, re-crop, play with the shadows and highlights, darken/brighten it, apply some of the filters, and start to think what it is you like/don’t like. Find some ready-made effects on the internet or in editing programmes like Smart Photo Editor or, as Mac used, Topaz. Just, if it’s a treasured possession, make sure that you are working on a copy. We will revisit looking at photos critically and how to use the results later on in the season, the blog has been there before, but there is a lot to be learned from just messing about with what you already have from time to time. It’s not just a walk down memory lane we are talking about here, we are also talking about the opportunity to use editing software (including the Adobe Suite, Gimp and the other “Grown up” editors), to actually learn and develop from a historical, personal perspective by looking at how our style, techniques and competencies have evolved.
Back on the camera there are other perimeters besides the exposure triangle and filters and presets that can be employed. Techniques such as free-lensing a.k.a lens whacking, DIY Macro, or just exploring the in camera effects, for instance help to mix it up. That, I guess is really the basis of Mac’s message. You already have a catalogue of images, go back and have a look at them, they represent an opportunity to educate yourself using your own materials. And maybe even make a better go of it? Mix it up helps you to not keep taking the same sort of photograph each time you take the camera out, or helps you take the same sort of photograph differently because you have a better idea of what you want to see in the finished image, thereby giving you the chance to control the important elements to that vision. You get more of it right in the camera. In Stephen Covey’s best seller “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” one of those habits is to “Start with the end in mind“. Sound advice because it also helps with those days when nothing seems to work and you end up pointing and shooting in that hit and hope manner (had one of those yesterday at Woodhenge), because I didn’t really know what I wanted to show. What I did think I wanted was a drone but that’s not in my price bracket. What I should have done is concentrate on details, probably very small ones in what is a big landscape. Still, live and learn. So, thank you Mac Bouchere, lots to think about.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Mini groups presentations.
Kev and Rich’s presentation on the planned approach to image capture was far ranging and very well received. Thank you gentleman for a very informative evening. I look forward to putting this into action at next week’s practical session, not least because I am far more comfortable with the suck-it-and-see approach.
Now the lucky accident (serendipity to give it its all-dressed-up-going-to-Sunday-Meeting name) plays its part in everyone’s lives, but it’s no way to run a business, even one called Serendipity. Well you’d think so but there is a business strategy based upon it and the idea that when taking over a business there are additional benefits to be found in its way of doing things either in physical or intellectual property beyond that which was originally planned for and made the acquisition attractive. So, as an adjunct rather than a strict contrast I want to use this week’s blog to square the circle a little and hopefully add to Kev’s and Rich’s interesting evening.
Planned serendipity can be applied to photography, in fact I believe it is at the heart of the creative process. In order to support that rather bold statement it is going to be necessary to discuss a little by what I mean by it and see how it might be applied to our shared art. Going out (or staying in) and coming back (or tidying away) with an image to mark and to celebrate is as old as cave painting (where they had the bonus of something to eat too). It is something of a celebration each time we press the shutter release as we have found something in essence that we want to preserve and probably share. To that end we have control over the not just the triangle of exposure (ISO, aperture, and shutter speed) but, to some greater or lesser extent, the light. In a studio context this is obvious and, in theory at least, total. Outdoors is a different question, the weather is not under our control, but as we discussed last week, that is not necessarily a question as black and white as it seems. It depends on how you frame the question, making the weather the subject of your image as opposed to a reason for not going forth in the first place. You adapt to the condition to the point where the condition becomes the subject. You take the incidence of the weather and you turn it to your advantage. That is planned serendipity.
It is easy to extend this into a reason not to bother planning, because something will turn up. No way to shoot a wedding where getting the right shot is a result of anticipation and planning (see the blog entry on Dan T’s wedding photography session). The key is to know as much as you possibly can beforehand, get to know your subject and your location. No way to shoot landscape either (consistently), if you are after a particular effect. How can that apply to the outdoors? I touched a little on this last week when I talked about the Photographers Ephemeris (free for Mac or PC, paid for on i-Phone or Android) or using Google Maps and the relevant tables (though if doing this I would go to the Photographers Ephemeris as a default unless the detail and the working out is where the fun is for you). Control what you can control. You might have all the data you need to make that perfect sunset or moonrise in terms of time and geography, the weather forecast may be just so, but you can’t control the cloud that is in the wrong position at the wrong time, obscuring the object of focus (though you can borrow one from another image if you want to add). In that case come back another day. Whatever happens and to quote Napoleon Bonaparte (in translation of course) “Time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted”, and Kev and Rich’s trip to Iceland certainly proved that. They suggested that whereas the internet is a great resource you need to get your information from at least three different sites. There are smart phone apps that can help with that, on both Android and i-Phone. Know what you are looking for and where best to look for it.
There was the inevitable discussion about RAW v JPEG. This is one that will go on forever and a day. There is nothing wrong with either format. There is more processing latitude with RAW than there is with JPEG. If you are a Get-It-Right-In-The-Camera-ista (I bet you used to shoot transparencies, didn’t you?) then there is not a lot in it. If you can’t get to within + or – 1EV of the desired/ideal/correct exposure then shoot RAW. RAW has more latitude within it, + or – 3 EV. For EV read f-Stop. A change of + or – 1 EV is a change of + or – 1 f-Stop. The bottom line is, at least for me, show me a print and I can’t tell whether it’s a RAW or a JPEG. If you are doing it for love take your pick. If you are of the order of Ye-Acolytes-of-Photoshop, shooting one off photographs for money, determined that your camera is conspiring against you (turn off in camera adjustments), curious or just plain anti then use RAW. Or one of its many variants. Your camera manufacturer has their own version of it. Perhaps you should ignore that bit if you are paranoid about your camera conspiring against you.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pre-process (if that is the right word) your image. ND (Neutral Density) filters and ND graduated filters and polarisers both circular and linear were also discussed as part of the process of manipulating light. A price range around examples of Lee, Hitek and Cokin were all mentioned and the relative merits boiled down to the old truism that you get what you pay for, with Mark S’s recommendation that people consider the Hitek IRND for its colour neutrality at half the price of the Lee. Thanks for the links Mark. What system you choose make sure that there is a match between the filters and the holders that go with them.
In the planned serendipity video above (link here) James Austin’s book Chase Chance and Creativity is referred to and in it he talks to four kinds of luck.
Firstly, that which is just, or seems to be, random “Sheer dumb luck”).
Secondly, chance from purposely acting towards a defined end (running out of “Unluck”, you know the sort of thing, entering photos into competitions, getting feedback, putting that into action – it’s a hint), where keeping doing things in search of something particular stirs up the creative pot.
Thirdly, chance favouring the prepared mind (“Sagacity“), that is thinking like and acting purposefully as a photographer as opposed to a person with a camera bumping into photo ops.
Fourthly the sort that comes from being us, our actions, likes and dislikes, or as the great Victorian politician Benjamin Disraeli put it ” We make our fortunes and we call them fate”.
So is it a case that P.P.P.P.P.P. (Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Photography)? That might make for a neat conclusion but I think that is to miss the point that Kev and Rich were making and certainly excellently illustrated in their previous talk on Iceland I referred to above. The point is, in this post at least, the more you make happen deliberately the more you have scope to take advantages of what chance presents you. You make your own luck. You plan to make your own luck. Taking your own luck is called Planned serendipity. Thursday, be there, try it out.