Reflex Open Competition Round 4 last meeting and congratulations to the award winners and I hope everyone took something away from the evening. Our judge was Roger Mallinson, the man to go to if you want to know about making audio visual presentations and a returnee to judge at Reflex and many thanks to him for his time and effort. As usual the winners will appear on the club website in due course.
“There is no special way a photograph should look“ – Garry Winogrand.
Even a themed competition will tell you that and whereas there are things that work as a general rule, the tools of composition, and sharpness, as we have quoted before, is a “Bourgeoise concept” (maybe). It does rather make you wonder what club competitions are for.
Well the first two clues are in the name club competition. It is about members of the club, first and foremost. Members having a framework into which they can receive feedback. And it is about competition, that is to say a test of skill and ability against other like minded individuals. They coexist but, depending on our choices and personalities, one side will be more important than the other. Recognition is both a middle point and the backbone that connects the two extremes.
If no two pictures are the same how do we differentiate between two pictures on merit? The tools of composition give us a clue, more particularly how they are used and abused, but there is no one accepted system, though some sort of system is required to be consistent.
No two judges are the same and that is a good thing. All our judges are fellow photographers and have their own development route. OK we have all sat there and thought, on occasion, what are they on and where do I get some? when our carefully crafted images totally fail to convey their message. The fault does not lie with the viewer. It is still a good thing if that failure comes with an explanation. Better yet one that we can apply to the next similar situation.
If we don’t fail, at least occasionally, and have an inkling of why we fail then we will not learn. It all comes back to that word “Because”. There is no way a photograph should look. There are individual tastes and opinions and that will apply to any judge the same as to the rest of us.
Lets come back to that idea of sharpness and its evil twin blur as one example. Generally, when looking at a photograph, one of the first things that strike us is can we see it clearly. It is important because I, for one, can see blurry things just by taking my glasses off. Rather like a number of my fellow club members, I paid rather a lot of money specifically to do the opposite and see things in focus. Focus is a thing and having something sharp within our depth of focus is generally desirable.
If there was a single way of producing an acceptable image all images must either be all in or all out of focus. We would then be free to challenge this convention or rule in the pursuit of artistic interpretation. Hold on. Wait one. That’s exacly what we do on occasion. It is one of the most popular nights we have for practicals on the calendar. It’s called light-painting.
Blur can be creative when it is deliberate and controlled (or we can pass it off as that). We generally differentiate blur from focus as one is produced by movement and one by mechanical physics. Ultra wide and expensive prime lenses producing very limited acceptable focus and blury (often sold as dreamy) backgrounds are all the rage. Bokeh is a thing too and now deemed as a selling point in a lens. Figure to ground is an established art principle of grouping things together visually (visited recently in our tour around Gestalt theory) where the subject is seperated from but relational to the background (and or foreground).
Creative blur is an accepted technique. That is it is deliberate and measured in its application to a suitable subject. The idea of photo-dynamism is over a century old and is linked to a wider art movement known as Italian Futurism, though photography was initially rejected by the Futurists for being static.
It has several variants we might use. First up we have the deliberate de-focusing effect. Bokeh originated from this in Japan and became a form all of its own but was always an incidental to taking photographs with points of light in the background. Defocusing works best in colour, with large blocks of identifiable shapes such as flowers, people, painted walls etc. It also works well when shooting against a bright background. Where to stop defocusing is a personal call, again there is no fixed point, but it’s fun to do.
Next up we have panning. We talked last week about taking panoramas, basically a linked series of photographs of something from a fixed point that usually extends beyond the horizontal field of focus of our lenses regardless of there orientation. This uses the same movement idea but within the same period of exposure. By necessity this involves longer shutter speeds but doesn’t have to be on a tripod,.though a pair of steady hands is useful. Keeping the focus and speed in synch on the subject is one option, but the other is to slowly follow the subject through keeping it identifiable but blurred.
Thirdly we have the deliberate shake of the camera during the exposure, up and down or left to right. This doesn’t have to be violent to give an effect but it is best if slightly exaggerated. A fourth variation is to rotate the camera during the exposure around a fixed point.
So five variations that we can try and combine into a little project and maybe use to generate entries in the next round of ROC.
Given the travails that we went through to get last meeting off the ground, loosing not one but two judges at very short notice, then Bristol traffic conspiring to wedge the prints in an immovable traffic jam on the other side of town, just when things looked like they might be going right leads one to wonder just what the universe was telling us. Absolute sterling work from the Competition Secretary, Mark O’Grady, frustrated by circumstance. Big thanks from all of us Mark, for going above and beyond. Then – and British readers of this blog will want to make sure that they are resolutely braced before taking this bit in – the tea urn went missing. Still we got somewhere in the end.
So, why does a club have competitions? There are, of course as many reasons for that as there are club members. Recognition, acclamation, ideas, feedback, discussion something to fill a hole in the calendar, are just a few of the headlines you could write a whole blog and more on each. No, don’t panic, I am not going to. When children draw they don’t have a concept of consequences, is this good or is this bad? Right colours? Does it look like it should? and so on. What they produce is intensely personal and very honest. As we grow older we learn notions of correctness and benefit and we unlearn the naiveté that made making pictures fun. Even of the abstract we come to demand technical proficiency. We corral our imagination.
In time we improve or abandon the pursuit according to circumstances and according to what we want. We buy a camera because we want to record a special occasion, a holiday or maybe our own children or children we are close to, a few of us because we are curious about pictures and want to get better at making them. Now- a-days, rather than buy a camera specifically we are much more likely to turn to our phones. The pictures we want to make are generally those we can create without the many hours and mess involved in painting, never mind the fine motor skills, which some turn into is photography art debates (Yes move on). Cameras and pictures are so much a part of society these days that picture making is pretty much second nature.
Most of those pictures being taken at this very moment are dull, boring, technically flawed and mean something only to the person who will forget they took it by tomorrow. They are constructed for different purposes. We decide to get better at this sort of thing and, suddenly, (nearly) everyone else’s pictures look better than ours. That can be a spur or it can put us off. Access to the ways of doing things is a lot easier now than it was, there are blogs and video channels aplenty as well as the more traditional routes through books and courses galore that blend all these. That, however, can make matters confusing rather than easier. So we know about the tools of odds, of thirds, of lead lines and negative space, symmetry, foreground interest and the effect of focal length, and the importance of balance and we know all about the exposure triangle. In fact we can know a lot about a lot and can still make pictures that lack impact.
The problem, at least in part, is that we have all these tools and rules but they are tools and rules of thumb. Certainly they exaggerate elements of the arrangement of the objects in the frame and hold others back but we keep coming up against the idea of technically proficient but subject deficient – and other people’s photographs still look better than ours. It is self doubt that becomes, once one has learned the basics, the biggest drag on learning. Sometimes we cannot see for looking. Sure, we need a mind open to development, open to seeing other people’s work, looking at other pictures in that picture but the frame of mind has to be positive and the habit has to be always looking for the picture – even when you can’t carry a camera. The habit is the thing that enables everything else, the letting go of the half-expectation of finding something to photograph and replacing it with the opportunities to see something to photograph.
That can be where club competitions come in. Yes we want to test our metal against others, but we also need feedback. No we don’t always agree with the judge, but we need to be able to say why. Yes the judging is subjective, yes its structure does mean certain types of photography may not fare as well, but it is a structured feedback on pictures that are anonimised and it is something that you can work with if you choose. The more experienced judges should come with a wider perspective anyway and whereas they will have their likes and dislikes – some of them strong – the perspective they are showing is a start.
If we can get into the habit of the feedforward loop we will do ourselves an enormous favour. Feedforward is when we take the experience of a previous occasion and use it to improve (control) a future event. Learning from the future ” Images of adaptive future behaviour, hitherto not mastered” (Wikipedia) or in our case getting the picture we see in our head as a Jpeg by design not accident, is something we can only do as design.
Next session is a 10 by 10 (or there abouts) where members talk about their own images, what they got from them, what they would do differently (among other things). Open to all members, bring some along and join in, especially our newer members, as we are all interested in photography and this is a good opportunity to share it.
The WCPF Travelling Critique did a sterling job of standing in without our scheduled speaker last meeting when we looked at the club competition for projected images won by Dorchester narrowly beating Bristol Photographic Society. It suggests two strands I want to discuss in this weeks’ blog. At the end of the series and before we went onto the 10×10 and Mark’s mini photoshop tutorial (thanks to Wendy G, Mark S and Eddie H for making that possible), I was put in mind of my grandfather’s culinary maxim, one which I think will stand for any man not prepared to waste time stuffing a mushroom, that “When it’s brown it’s done, when, it’s black it’s bugg***d”. It has served me well, though black pudding is something of a contentious area. It came to mind given the amount of, admittedly very well executed, post production work that, on the brown-black ancestral culinary continuum (hence forth the BBACC) suggested above, was certainly more brown than black but does that still leave it fundamentally bugg***d?
I have alluded before to the factions of Ye-Acolytes-of-Photoshop and the Get-It-Right-In-the-Camera-istas and in truth both have an argument in context – Dan Thomas (www.danyt.co.uk) talked about the removal of noise when using high ISO’s from poorly lit weddings i.e. when you are being paid to get the shot in conditions that are presented to you and certainly I can’t see a sensible argument against that; I talked about taking time to get it right in the camera when you have the time and luxury of a product shot in a controlled situation and though I am often to be found arguing with myself, I hold to that opinion as a start point. “The right way” (as alluded to in Sir Ken Robinson’s oh-so-right TED talk recorded a couple of years back) is a dangerous place to start in any creative endeavour, so often it is about defending the dominant way, so when we have categories and standards are we enforcing a “right way” that has more to do with fashion than correctness?
From the last WCPF post on prints I suggested that there are frameworks that can be used to give a logical and comparable basis for talking about images and I suggested a funnel that states your:
- First, broad, emotions when presented with the image (because of my….)
- Likes/Dislikes (because they….)
- Provoke these thoughts and feelings (because the handling of…)
- The technical aspects – light/focus/foreign objects/crop/exposure/saturation etc show and – (because the ….)
- Overall artistic impressions of composition, colour, subject matter lead to …. (because these)
- Particular aspects appeal … and (because…)
- Adjusting these aspects would change the image by … (and this all adds up to the image communicating …. because)
- Of these technical and artistic merits.
I don’t claim particular authorship of it – it’s an adaption of something I was given for appreciating poetry some years ago and there is a very similar version on Wikihow, on Examiner.com on expertphotograpahy.com a dozen other sites at least and on the Anthony Morganti YouTube Channel to name but a few. What it is, is a way of being consistent about approaching looking at photographs. So far so not news. It is why there are training panels for WCPF judges (among others) why there are advice notes for RPS distinction panels, et cetera, et cetera. However, as we all know, as soon as you put someone else in the frame, viewer, judge, then the subjective elements become more contentious.
So how do these two things tie in? There were some very well executed images that were patently unnatural in their presentation. So what? All images are artefacts, something made by artificial means. There were some very natural looking images that one suspects were expertly manipulated – despite the WCPF’s best efforts to present the lowest quality image compatible with projection and partially at least, rather diminishing the technical angles, but such is the world of copyright theft that I understand why they do it. So what was being judged, the photography or the post processing?
In part that isn’t really a fair question. A very high percentage of club, any club, photography will have some degree of post production so the only logical answer to the question is both. When viewing a “finished” image it is the final product we judge because it is the final product we are presented with. That is a pretty sterile, and somewhat circular (it is what it is because it is), argument. Move it a little and we might find another answer. Are we judging camera skills and computer skills? Is photography, in the competitive sense, now about painting with light and manipulating with image editing programmes and what is the balance?
This isn’t just idle speculation – only a few of us are capable at our current development levels of producing images as consistently good as the ones that were on display. This actually goes to the heart of club competitions. The judges we have had have all – well those who turned up, anyway – made the point that there are only small gaps between the best of the novice and the advanced category pictures. This in turn begs the question why have the two categories? I believe that there is a need for two categories and that lies in the diminishing number of entries to the competitions – novice print is all but dead on its feet. That is possibly a sign of times and the print/projection categories may no longer be meaningful. It shouldn’t mask the possibility that entering a competition that you have no chance of winning is a futile exercise for some – why put yourself up for a public slating? It isn’t futile, but that comes back to the points made by Sir Ken Robinson and the attitudes to “failure”. The only way we truly fail that way is to not engage, but we want to get it “right”.
This is where the idea of a standard becomes useful. The things you have to get technically correct (in camera preferably) but can also be helped along with a little post processing voodoo. There are compositional things that may look good as t-shirt slogans such as: “Viva the rule of thirds” “Fifths are for Landscapers!” and “Remember the Golden sections!”; “Long Live the harmonies of the colour wheel”; “The midday sun is for siesta not photography”, “Diagonals are dramatic darling”! “Eliminate dead space!”; “Don’t put your subject in the middle of the frame, Mrs Robinson!” and so on. All of which I have and you have, seen smashed to good effect. The general rule still remains you have to be able to make it before you can break it and so, like the appreciation framework, this gives us a guide.
We take those competition rules and we put them into our images and we enter the images into club competitions and get feedback from people who have a lot of experience at giving feedback (even if it is difficult to overcome some of their all too obvious dis/liking for some subjects and treatments). We use that feedback to get our next competition image better regarded. We take all the feedback from all the images in the competitions and we try them out on our own. This is where the community aspect of the club comes in. We enter the competitions to get help others as well as ourselves and the creative sessions and the competitions and the presentations all come together. It has to be a balance between the art and the craft and the competitions. The more entries the better in this regard. Where’s yours?
Small steps, but ones that get us to see more before we press the shutter. We know when this has taken effect when we start framing everyday things in our minds eye as if it were through a view finder – and most of us carry a camera of some sort pretty much every day. And does it matter about the amount of post-production? Well, as a rule of thumb, when it’s brown it’s done, when it’s black, it’s bugg***d.
NEXT WEEK Club Annual General Meeting.